- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

In Tim O'Brien's new novel "July, July," a group of aging baby boomers gather for the 30th reunion of Minnesota's Darton Hall College class of 1969. Using a brisk, straightforward narrative the author gives each a chance to speak of old romances, new ones, quirky life choices that haunt and the cruel ironies of fate. One by one, they laugh, weep, strive and beg for individual attention, and the net effect is often powerful.
What saves this book from being just another navel gazing romp by the (my) solipsistic 1960s generation is the strength of each portrait and the clarity of the writing. Mr. O'Brien, an author best known for his books about the Vietnam War, "If I Die in a Combat Zone," "Going After Cacciato" and "The Things They Carried," applies his smart, steely, magic here, giving his characters, mostly ordinary people, the opportunity to become masters of their individual destinies in a not always accommodating world.
This is no small thing. At the moment we meet the Darton Hall alumni, we learn about their personal baggage: "Thirty-one years ago, in the brutal spring of 1969, Amy Robinson and many others had lived beyond themselves, elevated by the times. There was good and evil. There was moral heat. But this was the year 2000, a new millennium, congeniality in public places, hope gone stale, morons become millionaires, and the gossip was about Ellie Abbot's depression, Dorothy Stier's breast cancer, Spook Spinelli's successful double marriage and the fact that she seemed to be going for a triple that evening with either Marv Bertel or Billy McMann."
There is also David Todd who has lost a leg in Vietnam and Jan Huebner, a bitter woman who has been let down her whole life. Additionally, through the reminiscences of the group, readers meet Karen Burns and Harmon Osterberg, who are dead, and who by virtue of being so, seem to have as much, or more, of a reunion presence than the "six attorneys, twelve teachers, five physicians, one chemist, three accountants, nineteen entrepreneurs, fourteen full-time mothers, one chief executive officer, one actor, one minister, one Lutheran missionary, one retired librarian [and] one lieutenant governor" who gather to dance under cardboard stars.
The humor and the sophistication of the relationships reflect Mr. O'Brien's attempt to move away from war to more domestic themes, as his more recent novels "In the Lake of the Woods" and "Tomcat in Love" show. But make no mistake, in these pages, the Vietnam War hovers. Mr. O'Brien, himself a Vietnam veteran, has created sympathetic portraits of representatives on all sides: Democrat and Republican, young men who fled to Canada and those who fought in the trenches.
Of the latter, David Todd, whose experience in Vietnam is recounted with great depth and poignance here, is the moral center of the novel. His is the first story told, and the one that remains the most vivid of all. Shot in both feet, his struggle to survive in the tall grass "along the fast-moving river called Song Tra Ky," with Syrettes of narcotics to ease the pain and strains of Sly and the Family Stone playing on a fallen comrade's transistor radio, provides a necessary counterpoint to the otherwise familiar preoccupations of the rest of the class.
No judgments are made here, no tidy lessons learned, but Mr. O'Brien's skill with moving juxtapositions shows forth when the nearly dying 22-year old hears the sound of his rescuer's arrival and then thinks of the Apollo moon landing:
"His feet hurt, he was alone and scared, he was too young for this. But twelve minutes later he felt a bounce of joy as Eagle touched down on the Sea of Tranquility. It was almost elation, almost awe. He wondered if Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins would make it home."
David returns from Vietnam to a life which he will marry his college sweetheart, Marla, and try to make sense of his war experiences. The marriage will last nine years. The war memories will last far longer. Without a doubt, David is the most admirable and likeable character among a group of individuals who are less so. They struggle to balance who they were 30 years ago with who they are now. Some are remarkably unchanged; others are nearly unrecognizable:
"On the dance floor, a tall, silver-hired chemist, once shy and bookish, stiffened the drink of a retired librarian, once a prom queen. Neither mentioned it, but the years had leveled their bumpy playing field. He had become a Nobel prospect, she had become a recipient of insufficient alimony. Payback was in progress."
The chemist and the librarian are merely backdrop characters who readers do not get to know. Of the central cast who become known, few are pillars of sobriety and morality. But even the least well behaved among them is affecting because the author gives each a chance to confront his or her own weaknesses.
As a still young girl, Jan Heubner (of whom her mother said was "ugly as North Dakota) tried to make some fast money by posing nude for a con artist. Later this man got her to marry his evil brother for a time, and she now must reckon with the fact that she went from one bad decision to worse.
Spook Spinelli's "double marriage" and subsequent affairs catch up with her when she realizes "her genius for romantic calibration collided with common sense. Enough became enough."
The climax of the book comes when the assembled friends attend a memorial for the two classmates who have died. (Harmon Osterberg, by drowning during an adulterous outing, and Karen Burns murdered by a man she did not know was a drug runner). Afterwards they all retire to a former haunt to drink beer and collect themselves, anticipating the inevitable parting drama. "The concluding banquet, they knew, would be a sentimental nightmare, false promises rolled up inside platitudes, and now , with various shadings of motives and intensity, each of them was aware of a growing pressure to fill these last hours with significance."
So they advance, expecting final connections which don't fully materialize. There is more than a little here that will be familiar to fans of "The Big Chill," the 1983 film that was the first to capitalize on the boomer-unresolved-reunion-genre. And as such, one can't help but wish that the richly drawn and thoroughly believable characters of this fine novel would just move on.
JULY, JULY
By Tim O'Brien
Houghton Mifflin, $26, 322 pages

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