Vietnam Veterans of America
Books in Review, September/October 2019
Tim O’Brien’s First Book in 17 Years is Nonfiction—and Brilliant
How to describe Tim O’Brien’s Dad’s Maybe Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 400 pp., $28)—the acclaimed novelist’s first book-length literary effort since 2002—other than to say that’s it’s a brilliant work of nonfiction and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before?
The publisher calls it “a funny, tender, wise, and enduring literary achievement.” That’s true. The Library of Congress and Book Industry headings lists on the book’s copyright page are helpful, too:
But all of the above does not adequately convey exactly what this book is, nor the enormity of what O’Brien has accomplished. To say the book is about “fatherhood,” is akin to saying that Catch-22 is about World War II.
Yes, the main conceit is that after O’Brien became a first-time father at age fifty, he quickly realized that he wouldn’t be around for most of his son’s (and two years later, his second son’s) lives. So he decided to set down words of wisdom in a “book of love letters to his children,” words that, he says, “I have often wished my own father had given me—some scraps of paper signed ‘Love Dad.’ ”
We do get the promised “love letters” to the boys, dealing with matters mundane and profound. We also get many Tim O’Brien first-person narratives, complete with dialogue, about his father, the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and the ups and downs of middle-aged parents raising infants, toddlers, and adolescents. Some are pleasingly offbeat, including O’Brien’s interest in magic and his sons’ obsession with wearing animal tails. Some are almost painfully blunt meditations on life’s bitterest pills.
So, yes this book is about family, fatherhood, relationships, and parenting, and it’s also autobiographical. But we’re dealing with the fertile literary mind of Tim O’Brien here, a guy who has been ruminating, writing, and speaking about his service as an infantryman in the Vietnam War and the deadly nature of war and its psychological aftermath for more than a few decades. A brilliantly creative writer (and thinker) who “frets over word choices with the neurosis of a scab picker,” he has crafted a series of memorable books, nearly all about the war.
If you haven’t, I strongly recommend reading O’Brien’s creative 1973 memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone; his National Book Award-winning surreal 1978 in-country novel, Going After Cacciato; and The Things They Carried, a group of linked short stories that came out in 1990, and is all but universally regarded as the best fictional treatment of the American war in Vietnam.
In his new book O’Brien offers up many insights on war, death, and human mortality. He also writes at length about works of fiction—including the novels and short stories of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ernest Hemingway—that ponder the human cost of war. O’Brien’s deconstructions of Hemingway short stories and novels, in fact, make up a significant portion of the book.
O’Brien’s other main theme is his service in the Vietnam War and how that has influenced his life and work (and psyche) over the last five decades. “In the end,” he says in explaining the Hemingway short story “Soldier’s Home” to his sons (and to us), “the most powerful influence on my work was not a literary one. It was the fucking war. It was the replay afterward. I wrote my stories to interrogate my own nightmares, my own frozen and inarticulate memory, even if—not because—Mailer and Vonnegut and Hemmingway had earlier interrogated theirs.”
O’Brien includes many details of his growing up in Worthington, Minnesota, the Turkey Capital of the World (he reminds us several times), especially his complex relationship with his book-loving father, a World War II veteran driven to alcoholism by the post-traumatic stress he couldn’t control after coming home. “I think about my father coming home from the South Pacific, dumping his medals in a drawer, and spending the next thirty-five years selling life insurance,” O’Brien writes.
We get a ton of details about what life was like for the draftee infantryman as he experienced some of the worst that the Vietnam War could offer. Tim O’Brien served a 1969-70 tour of duty with Company A of the 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment in the 23rd Infantry Division, aka the Americal Division. Here’s one of the book’s many brutally brilliant meditative passages:
“The names, the faces, the shaggy little villages, the endless sweeps of obscenity and monotony and humidity and greenery, the endless terror, the endless uncertainties—will I die here, will I die there, will I die with the next step or the next step or the next?—the land mines, the scary firefights—those long and numbing marches up into the mountains and down into the paddies and then up again into the mountains, the pranks, the horseplay, the ghosts, the nights, the mumblings of the freshly dead, the things I thought, the things I said.”
Today, “especially at night,” he concludes, “my made-up stories are what I have instead of memory.” That is another theme in this book and in The Things They Carried, (a work of fiction in which the main character is a Vietnam War infantryman named Tim O’Brien). It’s what he calls “the contested frontier between actuality and story.”
In that vein, he goes on to tell his sons that writers “choose to invent things for a reason, otherwise there would be no fiction. There would be no novels, no movies, no short stories, no TV dramas, no Lake Wobegon, no War of the Worlds, no Romeo and Juliet, no Ulysses, no Scrooge, no Seinfeld, no Little Red Riding Hood or Rumplestiltskin or Thumbelina.
“Broadway would go dark. Hollywood would shut down. Fathers would stop telling bedtime stories to their children. Considering all that, imagine what an impoverished world it would be in the absence of noble falsehoods.”
There is much more in this book, including a brilliant juxtaposition of events that happened to O’Brien in Vietnam and a retelling of the Revolutionary War Battles of Lexington and Concord, and a chapter on how O’Brien feels about his fellow Vietnam War veterans (which is bound to offend some of us).
The one negative thing I can say about the book is that O’Brien’s deep, intense meditations on death and dying and the obscenity of war probably will be too distressing for his sons (who are now teenagers) to deal with now—and in the future when their father no long walks the Earth.
But maybe that’s the point of what he terms “the music of grief.”
What Tim O’Brien has seen and dealt with brilliantly in his books can be the reading equivalent of a blow to the stomach. Yes it hurts, but it’s a powerful depiction of the horror of war in general and the American war in Vietnam in particular, and it’s something every veteran’s sons and daughters should know.
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