Posted by: gdevi | May 31, 2010

Book Review: Tim O’ Brien, The Things They Carried (1990)

Commentary, Lock Haven Express, June 2, 2010.

The Things They Carried: Twenty Years Later

2010 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Tim O’Brien’s mostly autobiographical memoir/ linked short-stories about the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried.  Houghton Mifflin has reissued the book in both hardcover and paperback to mark the occasion.  I usually teach this novel or excerpts from it when I teach introductory level literature courses; the novel has a particularly sobering effect on seventeen and eighteen year olds coming of age on a staple diet of terrorism threats, paranoia, unseen, unknowable, and seemingly uncontrollable enemies waiting to pounce on America and its way of life.  The Vietnam war was also fought to defend our way of life ; so they get it. My students, without exception, love the book; the young men identify with the cockiness, the bravado, the  moral dilemmas, the ethical fade-outs, the messed-up humor, the scared psyches of a Jimmy Cross, “Rat” Kiley, Kiowa, Norman Bowker, Azar, Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk–these are kids just like them, no, like their uncles and dads used to be; men they have grown up with and have loved or hated or have no feelings about one way or the other. The young women love the book too; again, many of them will recount what they have heard about the Vietnam war from their uncles or dads or friends of uncles or dads. Scott F. kept shaking his head and saying, “This is exactly what my uncle said. This is exactly what my uncle said.”  We were reading that excoriating chapter How to Tell a War Story and its many axioms:

  • A true war story is never moral.
  • In many cases a true war story cannot be believed.
  • You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever.
  • A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.
  • Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep.
  • And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight.

In any other writer, such a sudden switch from the literal to the metaphorical might sound cutesy and dishonest, but in O’Brien’s case this is the sunlight into which the young Curt Lemon stepped, just an arc of light into which the young soldier seemingly stepped, and was suddenly blown up into bits: “There was a noise, I suppose, which must’ve been the detonator, so I glanced behind me and watched Lemon step from the shade into bright sunlight. His face was suddenly brown and shining. A handsome kid, really. Sharp gray eyes, lean and narrow-waisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.”  Before the platoon discovered the booby-trapped mine where he stood, Lemon’s platoon really believed that the sunlight killed him, because that is what they saw from a distance.  It is both the literal and metaphorical sunlight. A war story, O’Brien shows us in admirably precise prose is about how everything seemed; there is nothing definite; this is why these stories do not have morals nor can they be completed. The Things They Carried is filled with such gut-level memories and O’Brien tells them in a language that gracefully moves back and forth between reportage , personal interrogations, public revelations, and unforgettable subversions of the national mythmaking about Vietnam–“you come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it is never the same.”  Only someone with O’Brien’s deep distrust of the myth making machinery of war stories as they are told could give birth to Mary Ann Bell, Mark Fossie’s sweetheart in Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” Mary Ann Bell, “seventeen years old, fresh out of Cleveland Heights Senior High . . .long white legs and blue eyes and complexion like strawberry ice cream. Very friendly too,” the most oddball addition to that list of celebrity renegade soldiers, the most famous of which is of course Colonel Walter Kurtz from Apocalypse Now who goes “native” in Vietnam fighting alongside the Green Berets. The last we see Mary Ann, she has been swallowed by the jungle, had become a part of the land, had crossed over to the other side, “she was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill.”  Like a slant rhyme in a poem with otherwise perfect end rhymes, I ask students why the one renegade soldier in the collection is a young seventeen year old blonde girl.  They have to think it through but they eventually see the clever and brilliant commentary on Vietnam myths O’Brien has constructed.

There are many unforgettable chapters in this exquisitely written book, but the one that has a particular resonance with our younger generation is the chapter entitled “On the Rainy River.” Here, O’Brien tells of how he came pretty close to evading the draft and escaping to Canada. It was 1968 and O’Brien had just graduated from Macalester College, received his draft notice for Vietnam, and also received a scholarship for graduate studies at Harvard.  O’Brien took off running from his family, drove North, he says:

“It was pure flight, fast and mindless. I had no plan. Just hit the border at high speed and crash through and keep on running. Near dusk I passed through Bemidji, then turned northeast toward International Falls. I spent the night in the car behind a closed-down gas station a half mile from the border. In the morning, after gassing up, I headed straight west along the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada, and which for me separated one life from another. The land was mostly wilderness.  . . . Off to my right was the Rainy River, wide as a lake in places, and beyond the Rainy River was Canada.”

This is a hard chapter for my students to discuss, because, well, it fundamentally asks you to reason why you would choose fighting and perhaps dying in Vietnam over graduate school at Harvard.  What is beautiful though, is that away from the Fox News channel, away from the cheerleaders cheering your casket, the young men and women listen to O’Brien in the silence of their own minds, in the safe side of the book. O’Brien lives their fears for them and when they finish reading the chapter, the effect is strangely cathartic. O’Brien lists in a headlong rush the personal and the public history that dangles the sword of patriotism and honor above the head of every young able American: “All my aunts and uncles were there, and Abraham Lincoln, and Saint George, and a nine-year-old girl named Linda who had died of a brain tumor back in fifth grade, and several members of the United States Senate, and a blind poet scribbling notes, and LBJ, and Huck Finn, and Abbie Hoffman, and all the dead soldiers back from the grave, and the many thousands who were later to die–villagers with terrible burns, little kids without arms and legs–yes, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were there, and a couple of popes . .” O’Brien had run away to the Rainy River to decide his future and there in the company of a laconic old man Elroy Berdahl (just an amazing portrait of a minor character) O’Brien decides what he would do. Without asking a single question, Elroy takes O’Brien out on the river, and close to the Canadian shore of the river:

“I tried to will myself overboard.

I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, Now.

I did try. It just wasn’t possible.

All those eyes on me–the town, the whole universe–and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards way, I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all t was.

And right then I submitted.

I would go to war-I would kill and maybe die–because I was embarrassed not to. . . .I survived but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.”

In their reading responses, students wrestle with O’Brien’s admission; there are many young men and women who, left to themselves, are meaningfully and thoughtfully anti-war. They see the truth of O’Brien’s admission. Even those young men and women who are pro-war, do admit that many young people join the war for reasons other than really dying for the country. I have always wondered why O’Brien’s stories bring out such calm responses whereas townhall anti-war meetings end in hooting and hollering. O’Brien’s precision with language could be the most important reason, I think. Anti-war appeals must make a precise case for why we should not war; O’Brien tells a story that cannot be told, that has to be told over and over again, in order to arrive at the truth of the story. There is an animal-like insistence on the blood and bones of the truth of the war in O’Brien’s narrative. This is what makes the students believe, I think.

Now we are in the middle of two wars with no seeming end in sight.  So many transgressions piled on top of one another–in what is a barely printable message, a colleague forwarded an international editorial that compares British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf Coast, and the “drill baby drill” mantra of the oil lobby in the United States to an endless ejaculation that will deplete the earth. What can you say? Equally outrageous is the latest Israeli attack on Palestinian  aid activists in the international waters off of Israel. Two turbulent oceans in two parts of the world connect the destruction of nature and the destruction of the humankind–the fruits of war. May was a good month to revisit the reissuing of this great American book.


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