A dim book not likely to improve its author’s flickering critical reputation.



Eight previously uncollected stories, most written in the last ten years, from the author best known for his National Book Award–winning Middle Passage (1990).

Fantasy appears in the title story, with a young Martin Luther King having a vision of universal plenitude and international charity while raiding the fridge for a midnight snack; in an initially charming fable about a West African king whose artistic creations bring his people prosperity but can’t prevent their eventual enslavement (“The Gift of the Osuo”); and in the story of a liberal corporate executive undecided about whether to offer a plush job to a superbly qualified white woman or to a diffident, stiff-necked—but obviously deserving—black man (“Executive Decision”), a piece that has virtually no development or tension and is characterized thus in the “Publishing History” that follows its text: “Johnson thinks it’s quite possibly the only published short story that dramatizes the issue of affirmative action,” a sentiment either inaccurate, or meaningless, or both. Elsewhere, a coed’s unfortunate romance with an African dignitary’s son (“Cultural Relativity”) takes a hoary Aesopian twist; a Kafkan nightmare overtakes a citizen who has underpaid a new tax levied on dreaming (“Sweet Dreams”); and a one-joke anecdote describes how an insomniac college prof finds a cure for his misery by attending a faculty meeting (“Better Than Counting Sheep”). “Kwoon” is somewhat more substantial, as Johnson enters the thoughts of its two protagonists: a young martial-arts instructor and the hard-bitten ex-merchant marine who nearly kills him during a “sparring” exercise. Yet the story has a tenuous, unsatisfying ending. Far better is “The Queen and the Philosopher,” a witty tale of the 17th-century philosopher Descartes’ debilitating service to Sweden’s Queen Christina, who has summoned him “to serve as her personal tutor in philosophy and mathematics.” It’s inventive, breezy, and not—as Johnson’s fiction frequently seems—inordinately pleased with itself.

A dim book not likely to improve its author’s flickering critical reputation.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-7432-6453-3

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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The book is pure fun, although slender. Another volume of Maud’s misdeeds would be most welcome.


Five connected stories about a murderous old Swedish lady.

Maud has a good thing going. At age 88, she’s lived in a large apartment rent-free for 70 years because of a clause in an old contract. Never married, she loves to travel alone and to be alone. In the first story, "An Elderly Lady Has Accommodation Problems," a rare event happens: Her doorbell rings. Jasmin Schimmerhof, a 40-year-old avant-garde artist who lives in the building, stops by to say hello. The daughter of celebrities, her past includes drugs, multiple divorces, and tragedy. Her current art project strives to “unmask the domineering tactics of the patriarchy,” meaning that her small apartment is filled with phalluses—some even hanging from the ceiling. She is delightfully overbearing as she constantly tries to weasel her way into Maud’s good graces. But Maud isn’t stupid or senile, and she knows Jasmin is up to something. Once Maud figures out what it is, her solution is drastic, funny, and final. Maud is a seasoned world traveler who once, at age 18, had been engaged to Lt. Gustaf Adelsiöö. He’d emphatically broken off their engagement on learning her family wasn’t rich. Now, in “An Elderly Lady on Her Travels,” she reads in the newspaper that he is a wealthy 90-year-old widower about to marry the 55-year-old Zazza, whom ex-teacher Maud knows as her long-ago student, a schemer and a failed soft-core porn actress. When Maud arranges to get near her at a spa and then overhears Zazza’s plans to take control of Gustaf’s estate, Maud devises an emphatic countermeasure. And then in “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmastime,” she deals with “The Problem” in the apartment above her. Maud’s murders always have plausible motives, and she is a sympathetic character as long as one keeps a safe distance. Each story takes its sweet time to develop and concludes with a juicy dose of senior justice.

The book is pure fun, although slender. Another volume of Maud’s misdeeds would be most welcome.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-64129-011-1

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Soho

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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