The Things They Carried – A Book Review

In The Things They Carried, Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien called upon his own wartime experiences, labeled them as fiction, and wrote one of the most emotionally potent books I’ve ever read.

It’s irrelevant to me how much of O’Brien’s book “really happened” because O’Brien’s words and stories in The Things They Carried deeply touched me.  O’Brien wrote simply, but effectively.  He tapped into real emotion and conveyed those emotions skillfully.  With each and every short that made up a larger story with The Things They Carried, I could picture myself clear as day in those very same situations.

That’s one benefit of calling this book fiction.  Had O’Brien designated it nonfiction, I think each tale would have filtered through my knowledge this happened to O’Brien and registered as a “past event.”  But with it being called fiction, I could lose myself in the story and meld with it, become one with it, and see myself in it.  It allowed me ownership that nonfiction does not.

While O’Brien offers authentic knowledge on weaponry, tactics, and all things associated with being a wartime soldier, he focuses more deeply upon the human element.  The Things They Carried perfectly captures what it is to be human in times of chaos, fear, and horror.  He doesn’t glorify or lionize the characters in his stories.  He treats them as “real” (and perhaps they were), and he offers only the emotional truth.

There are things in this book that chilled me to the bone.  Not because it’s overtly gory, but because O’Brien cuts to the core of our fragile lives.  For instance, in one story a man dies after being sucked under mud during a mortar attack.  But he doesn’t write it from the dead man’s perspective, he writes it first from the perspective of the man next to him, then from the perspective of the man pulling the body out of the mud the next day.  Can you imagine?  I assure you, you’ll be able to imagine such a thing after reading The Things They Carried.  And that’s what makes this book so utterly effective.  O’Brien forces you to put yourself in it, to experience it through his straightforward, transparent, and evocative words.

I honestly only read this book because Tim O’Brien was coming to a local university and I was invited to attend a private reception for him.  I’d never heard of the man and had to ask a few friends for suggestions before one knew O’Brien’s work and told me to read The Things They Carried.  So expertly rendered were O’Brien’s words and so powerful was the raw emotional honesty in his book that O’Brien has secured me as a life-long reader.

I strongly recommend you read The Things They Carried.

Meeting Tim O’Brien

Last Thursday, I had the honor of meeting Vietnam veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien.

Now, first things first: I honestly had never heard of Tim O’Brien before my invitation to attend a private reception for him at the Bone Student Center.  I obviously needed to read one of his books before talking with him, so I got in touch with a few friends and they quickly suggested I start with O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

I ran to my nearest bookstore and picked up a copy.  It astounded me!  O’Brien writes mostly about his Vietnam experiences, but he calls his work fiction, and so therefore the reader never quite knows what “really” happened and what he’s fabricated. 

The Things They Carried utilizes such potent emotional honesty and simple, vivid imagery that it really does haunt me still to this day.  O’Brien cuts to the core of what most of us are really like beneath are words and gestures.  When the chips are down, when we’re called upon to rise above, O’Brien knows how most of us (admittedly himself included) will honestly react. 

His stories dig deep because we see ourselves in each of his characters, and most of us know that if we were put in the place of those characters, the end results would probably remain the same.

I’m looking forward to reading more from Tim O’Brien, but this isn’t a book review, so I’ll move along to meeting the man.

Armed with my (read) copy of The Things They Carried, I put on my best formal-but-not-too-formal outfit, grabbed an umbrella to ward off that day’s never-ending rain, and headed out.  It had been a rough one with the baby that afternoon, so I was both a bit frazzled and running a little late.  When I arrived at the Founders’ Suite in the Bone Student Center, I walked in, realized I had my book in a grocery bag to protect it from the rain, and walked right back out to find a garbage can. 

Good start, huh?

On the second take, I walked in and was quickly greeted by Toni Tucker-the event organizer-and her coworkers and interns.  These friendly faces immediately helped relax me, and so I talked a bit with them, slapped on my nametag, propped my umbrella against the wall, and made my way into the main room where several people surrounded Mr. O’Brien and were having a pleasant conversation. 

Mr. O’Brien wore a black suit with a red tie and his ever-present baseball cap (which was navy blue, if you’re interested). 

I glided right past he and his group and made my way to the tasteful wine bar.

Perhaps now would be the time to mention I get very nervous in general about a lot of things, but especially among people whose work I admire.  For instance, when I met Michael Chabon in Chicago several months ago, I sounded like a total moron. 

I hoped I would do better with Tim O’Brien.

I didn’t.

So anyway, I approached the wine bar, asked for and took the bartender’s suggestion since I know nothing about wine, then grabbed the nearest wall where I could watch and listen to Tim O’Brien’s conversation without a chance of actually being drawn into it.

Pretty soon one of Toni Tucker’s coworkers approached me and we had a nice talk, mostly about Elie Wiesel’s visit from a few weeks before.  Then Toni herself appeared and asked me why I hadn’t spoken to Mr. O’Brien yet.  My heart started racing and I muttered something about not wanting to overwhelm him with too many people, and she quickly scoffed at me and led me right up to the man.

My mind emptied like an aboveground swimming pool full of bullet holes.

I mumbled how thankful I was for his coming to visit us in Central Illinois, and he politely said it was his pleasure.  Toni then asked if he’d sign my book, which he nicely agreed to do.  As he was signing, my chronic verbal diarrhea attacked and I began talking about how happy I was to make it to his reception, that I’d been elbow-deep in poo-bombs all day with my baby girl, and I just wasn’t sure if she’d settle down enough for me to leave her.

When Mr. O’Brien heard the word “poo,” I got the look.

I knew it well.

Michael Chabon had given it to me several months before.

And like with Michael Chabon, I kept talking.  And talking.  My brain yelled “STOP TALKING!” but my mouth wouldn’t comply.

He handed my book back to me, smiled, shook my hand, and then I wished him luck with his talk that night.  Afterwards, I moped away, cursing my incessant need to talk about nothing when I get nervous.

I spent the rest of the reception talking with a former coworker, his father, and some other nice people all-the-while wishing I had been more articulate and intelligent when meeting Mr. O’Brien.

When I got home from the reception I discovered my daughter had developed a red bump on her tongue during my absence, which thankfully turned out to be nothing.

An hour later, I left for ISU again to listen to Mr. O’Brien’s address at Braden Auditorium after my wife assured me she and baby would be fine.  Toni had kindly given me front row tickets, so I settled in next to my former coworker and his father and thoroughly enjoyed Mr. O’Brien’s talk.

He mostly told stories to illustrate his points about writing and life, and he was both hilarious and full of gravitas at the same time.  This is not surprising considering his books are equally juxtaposed.

I think the words that affected me most deeply were that when we send men and women to war, especially when a draft is in effect, we’re essentially sending children out to slaughter children.  We teach them “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and then we toss them into combat and tell them you better kill somebody or we’ll throw you in jail.  We are a society of contradictions and that sort of thing has to catch up with us one day-if it hasn’t already.

He also warned us against anyone who deals in absolutism.  I’ve always been terrified of those people who see things from only one perspective without any willingness to consider another angle, and Mr. O’Brien solidified my fears.  Absolutes are the quickest way to war, and also the quickest way to make sure children slaughter other children.

But you have to understand that Mr. O’Brien was not pulling the self-righteous card.  He offered several instances when he did not act bravely.  He recounted an event where one of his fellow soldiers picked on an old, Vietnamese man and he didn’t intervene.  He spoke in great detail about killing an enemy soldier with a hand grenade whom he could have allowed to walk unknowingly by and how he still sees the man in his thoughts to this day.  He talked about many moments of insanity in Vietnam, and he also spoke about rare moments of true, moral fortitude. 

He was there, and he shared with us those things from Vietnam he still carries.

I found Mr. O’Brien exceedingly honest, humble, insightful, and engaging.  I’m so glad I got a chance to meet him and listen to his speech.  I’ve even almost forgiven myself for talking to him about “poo.”

While I was at his talk, the neighborhood’s power went out and my wife had been on her hands and knees crawling up the steps in search of a flashlight.  My daughter, never before subjected to complete darkness, was not handling the situation well.  Eventually they found a flashlight, the baby settled down, and after I got home we all sat together and waited for the electricity to return, which it did two hours later.

Author Tim O’Brien Is Coming To Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University

Novelist Tim O’Brien will visit Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, for the 7th Annual Ames/Milner Visiting Author Program on October 23, 2008.
At 2:00 p.m. at the Illinois Wesleyan University Hanson Student Center, Mr. O’Brien will participate in a question and answer session.

At 7:00 p.m. in Braden Auditorium at Illinois State University, Mr. O’Brien will address the community with “An Evening with Tim O’Brien.”  A book signing will follow the event.
All events are free and open to the public.

Mr. O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran and calls upon that experience for many of his works.  He attended Harvard University and once worked for the Washington Post.

His books include:
If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973)
Northern Lights (1975)
Going After Cacciato (1978)
The Nuclear Age (1985)
The Things They Carried (1990)
In the Lake of the Woods (1994)
Tomcat in Love (1998)
July, July (2002)

For additional information contact Toni Tucker or (309) 438-7402.

The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

Tobias Wolff has written a brief yet powerful tale concerning a young man awaiting deployment to Vietnam.  During his wait at Fort Bragg, a thief emerges, stealing from his fellow troops.  The tale goes on to offer reactions to the thefts, then, in true original Wolff style, switches perspective half way through to give insight into the motivations of the thief himself.  Finally, the book finishes with its original perspective, offering a tight and satisfying conclusion. 

Wolff is an expert at cutting to the heart of his characters, sometimes with very little narrative at all, but his stories always resonate with the reader far after the book has been finished.  The Barracks Thief is no exception, and I believe it is a superb commentary on how most of us feel alone even when surrounded by throngs of people.

In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it-if you are not reading Tobias Wolff you are only cheating yourself.  The man simply does not write anything less than absolutely mesmerizing.  I assure you, that is not an exaggeration.

This latest work of Wolff’s I’ve read is called In Pharaoh’s Army.  It is a memoir offering us what lead to his taking part in the Vietnam War, his actual tour, and then the aftermath.  Now having read all of Wolff’s work, I purposefully saved this one for last because I mistakenly believed I’d like it the least. 

I loved this book.  Those of us born after the war have a notion of what Vietnam was like thanks to Hollywood movies, but Wolff gives us a totally different perspective, though no less horrific.  Wolff’s memoir deals with the one thing nobody likes to talk about too much-fear.  He was afraid to go.  He was afraid while he was there.  And when he got back, he was afraid of what he’d become.  Wolff is not a weak man, you’ll gather that from his recounts, he simply does not bother to hide the fact that he was counting down the minutes until he got home, and he just wanted to stay alive.

Each of Wolff’s chapters are like mini-stories, and they each offer the hilarity, absurdity, and sometimes tragedy of his life during that time.  I was surprised at how much of the book is spent leading up to his deployment and then his eventual return.  I’d say only half of the book actually deals with his actual time in Vietnam. 

As I’ve said, I’ve never experienced anything like this book and I completely recommend you read it if you are interested in either Wolff himself, the Vietnam War, or in the form and style of a masterly rendered memoir.

Please, do us both a favor-read something by Tobias Wolff.