Not all the stories are set in Vietnam, but they might as well be. “Speaking of Courage” begins with Norman Bowker, once a “grunt” in Lt. O'Brien’s platoon, driving “his father’s big Chevy” around and around and around a lake back home in the Midwest. But it’s a symbol for a very different kind of lake back in Southeast Asia where something very terrible happened to Norman Bowker, something that has doomed him.
In a way, “The Lives of the Dead,” the last tale in the collection (or novel, if you prefer) is not about the war, even though the story begins with the death of yet another one of the men in his platoon. In it, O'Brien remembers a 9-year-old girl he loved when he was a 9-year-old boy and how they had one parentally chaperoned “movie date” before she died of a brain tumor.
He ends the book with an account of an “invented dream” he had in 1990, and in it he is again 9 years old and so is his ice-skating partner.
“Her real name doesn’t matter. She was nine years old. I loved her and then she died. And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I’m gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all. I can see Kiowa, too, and Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon [three more of Mr. O'Brien’s troops who were killed in Vietnam] and sometimes I can see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and I’m happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”
In a spell of memory and imagination of my own, I can remember a summer day many years ago. I was at a tennis court somewhere in Montgomery County. I’d been playing tennis with some journalist friends, and someone introduced us to a young reporter for The Washington Post by the name of Tim O'Brien. He was polite and friendly, but seemed a bit detached, as if he were looking off somewhere. After I read his sad but wonderful book, this book, I had a good idea of what was on his mind.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.