THE THINGS THEY CARRIED
By Tim O’Brien
Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt
$24, 233 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
Many people think this is the best work of fiction ever written about Vietnam. Some even think it is the best work of fiction ever written about war. Both are right, and they were right 20 years ago when this book came out for the first time.
In a rarely done tribute to one of its most successful books and its author, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt has re-issued “The Things They Carried” in both hardcover and paperback. That it appears near the seventh anniversary of a dual war effort that has many similarities to the war in Vietnam may not be coincidental. But it is not consequential, for this book is so good, it bears reissue every year.
In 1968, Tim O’Brien, newly graduated from Macalester College in his home state of Minnesota and accepted for graduate school at Harvard, went to war reluctantly. Opposed to the war, he’d even flirted with the idea of “running,” as some put it then, to Canada to escape the draft. But he didn’t. He went to war, survived, came back, did go to Harvard, worked for an unhappy while for The Washington Post and then went home to Minnesota.
Twenty years later, in 1990, he published this book. To say it was successful would be an understatement. “The Things They Carried” won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger. It deserved to win them.
A qualification may be in order here. If by fiction, one means imagined events, accounts of people and things who never actually lived or happened, then maybe Mr. O’Brien’s work isn’t fiction, because so much of it is based on his real-life experiences in Vietnam 40 years ago. But as he writes in “How to Tell a True War Story,” one of the almost two dozen interrelated and interwoven stories that comprise this book, “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.” (Got that?)
In a March 2010 radio interview, Mr. O’Brien answered a caller’s question about this book by saying, “The goal, I suppose, any fiction writer has, no matter what your subject, is to hit the human heart and the tear ducts and the nape of the neck and to make a person feel something about [what] the characters are going through and to experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human.”
“And in a way, for me, although on the surface, of course, it is a book about war … I’ve never thought of it, really, that way in my heart. Even when I was writing it, it seemed to be a book about storytelling and the burdens we all accumulate through our lives.”
The book opens with the title story, “The Things They Carried,” which for me is one of the most powerful stories in the book, and maybe the most powerful. As it shifts from mundane to meaningful in telling what they carried - “mosquito netting, machetes, canvas tarps” and “USO stationery and pencils and pens” to “a letter from a girl named Martha” to “For the most part they carried themselves with dignity,” the story itself also shifts from quotidian to symbolically significant. By its end, you know the men, and you have a pretty good sense of what they are up against.
Unlike certain other novelists who have written about war - Norman Mailer and James Jones come to mind - Tim O’Brien avoids grand sweeping sentences and word tsunamis, opting instead for simplicity. But it’s not a mannered simplicity, the kind that after a while devolves into self-parody; it’s the oh-so-powerful simplicity of the true.
For example, “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”
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.