Back in the early 1980s, I took a part-time job working for a jeweler in Mobile, Alabama. I was just home from a year in Europe, where I played organized baseball in northern Italy. I found a jewelry-repair job to help with finances while I finished work on a college English degree.
A good-natured and cheerful son of Mobile named Tom Y owned the jewelry store. (I’m going to keep Tom’s family name anonymous, for reasons that will become obvious.) Tom was an Irish Catholic boy who hung out in flip-flops listening to Jimmy Buffett in bars at the Gulf of Mexico on weekends. He belonged to one of the mystic societies that put on the famous Mardi Gras parades in Mobile, where Mardi Gras began in America. His jewelry business did fine. In all, Tom Y. had a happy life.
One day, Tom and I sat working at our jeweler’s benches, side by side, the sputter of a soldering torch the only sound in the shop. Setting diamonds and repairing broken 18-karat gold shanks is close work, and the concentration required to be a good bench jeweler keeps small talk truly small most of the time.
Still, leave it to me, a yakkity sort, to break the spell. That afternoon, for some reason, a question popped into my head, out of a clear blue nowhere.
Tom, did you ever know anybody who got killed in Vietnam?
Tom shifted a little in his seat, and without looking over at me, drew in his breath.
Yeah. My big brother.
The long shadow of a tragic war – of every war, really – settled over the jewelry store. I felt terrible, of course. I had no idea. Tom felt terrible too, but he went on to talk about it, in a halting, careful way completely at odds with his usual easy conversational style. This was a guy who sold jewelry, remember. He could talk.
But not that moment. He gradually got through the story, though, of how his big brother, Richard, called Dickie, had gone off from happy days driving a muscle car up and down Government Street to his untimely end in an anonymous southeastern Asian jungle. Dickie Y’s name was in Washington, D.C. … on The Wall. At the end of the alphabet, one of the last of some 58,000.
I tell this story to introduce a 1990 novel by Tim O’Brien called The Things They Carried, my subject for this week’s Booky Man column.
Most serious readers … and those who read a lot of war writing, as I do … consider this novel one of the two defining books written on the Vietnam War experience. (The other, nonfiction, is Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Francis Ford Coppola used that book as inspiration for the movie Apocalypse Now.)
Apocalypse Now – and fiction about Vietnam, if you’ll notice – is often described with an adjective you heard a lot in the 1960s.
The Vietnam War took place, of course, in the hippie times, and much of the freakishness of the ‘60s, which actually lingered until Nixon resigned in 1974, does seem today like a mass hallucination. Look at old news reports. German shepherds biting the faces off protestors. Presidents shot on main streets. Long-haired students slipping flowers down the gun barrels of soldiers.
Our eyes watched a society have a collective nervous breakdown. Our minds would take years to catch up, to comprehend. When the eyes see and the mind can’t grasp, what’s that, but hallucination?
It was especially so for Vietnam. How could the head make sense of what it saw? The druggy, eerie beauty of war in jungles; the crazy quality of the war itself, a long exercise in marching to an arbitrary point in the point-blank, green and alien wilderness, airlifting out your dead, then months later marching back to the same haunted place; the visuals of napalm and flights of helicopters and rice paddies and water buffalo – none of it seemed connected to the familiar, the comprehensible.
Walter Cronkite seemed to bring the nation a nightly nightmare … The CBS Eye stared at us and a voice said “that’s the way it is.”
Vietnam was never, ever, a background war. Never a low-grade fever of a war like the ones we fight now. We seem to have accepted that Iraq and Afghanistan will be with us as long as it takes, ho-hum, change the channel.
Not so with southeast Asia, where thousands of people regularly marched across campuses and into the streets for nearly a decade in riotous protests.
What was the mission in Vietnam, after all? One, two, three, what are we fighting for? All those dead, to keep Vietnam from becoming communist … and today, it’s communist. And a U.S. trading partner. At this very moment, you may have on a shirt or a pair of shoes made by hands that sharpened punji sticks or squeezed the trigger on a Russian rifle.
This sense of confusion, conundrum and consternation typifies much of the writing from the Vietnam experience, and it’s at the heart of The Things They Carried.
The fiction is by a man from a little lake town in Minnesota, the heart of the kind of hunting-and-fishing America that Hemingway writes about in the Nick Adams stories.
O’Brien carried a rifle in a platoon in Vietnam in 1989-1970. He then came home to exorcise his demons.
A 1978 novel, Going After Cacciato, first gave the author prominence, and a public chance to make sense of his helter-skelter experiences. This book captured that – yes – hallucinatory quality of the Asian war remarkably well, telling of soldiers who trooped out into the jungle to find a missing platoon member … and who didn’t stop walking until they made it to Paris, France, to civilization, safety, to a Parnassus of the arts and culture.
O’Brien’s masterpiece would follow. The Things They Carried is a second personal march into the jungle of Vietnam memory. It takes a brave writer. O’Brien dredges from the mud and blood and heat as much of a meaning for what happened to him as a man could possibly make of this senselessness. And O’Brien does it through fiction – a designed lie, a blurring of the line between fact and make-believe that he calls verisimilitude – rather than by telling the outright truth.
“Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories,” O’Brien wrote.
That’s important. Let me reprint a section of this book, a short chapter in its entirety. It explains better than any reviewer could how O’Brien grapples with the terror of his experiences and his memories:
It’s time to be blunt. I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
Almost everything else is invented.
But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.
But listen. Even that story is made up.
I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.
Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.
Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.
What stories can do, I guess is make things present.
I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.
That dead young man in the pathway might have been Dickie Y. Or one of the boys from Dothan, Alabama, my home town, who died over there. Or one of hundreds from Georgia or Massachusetts or California. It might have been 58,000-plus of us … and now, with our new wars, thousands more. And millions of our enemies. Any of them … or us … might be lying starry-eyed in that path O’Brien describes.
Why that happened … and how to live with it … is The Thing O’Brien Carries.
This book matters to me, a fiction writer, at another level.
The writer here tells us something not just about war, or the journey into psyche, but about fiction – about writing itself. About the Catch 22-quality of story-telling … its ability to tell the truth through patent, bald-faced lies, through made-up stories.
Aesop did it, didn’t he? Does anyone really believe a fox, thwarted by the unreachable height of a bunch of delicious-looking ripe grapes, slunk off, muttering “they’re probably sour anyway?” Does anyone believe a mouse gnawed a lion free of a net, then had the good luck to be saved by the lion when his own life was in danger?
Homer lied his ass off. The cockamamie tale of a war that lasted 10 years, when gods joined battles with Greeks and Trojans, when a great warrior was made invulnerable to wounds except for a single spot on his heel where he was dipped into the sacred river … do you buy that? Still, what story has given our culture greater truths to weigh than The Iliad?
Do we really believe the story Jesus told, for that matter – that’s right, Jesus, that old prevaricator – who spun a little white lie about a prodigal son? That wild child goes off to blow his part of the family fortune, falls into ruin, then comes home again to a joyful reception at the expense of the fatted calf … and his younger brother.
Jesus made up a tale. He told a parable. A fiction. And fiction tells a truth we need told a new way, a different way, to get it, to understand it.
That’s why fiction exists. That’s why it’s important that we read books and stories, to behold the hallucinations – the waking dreams – our writers put between pages for us to comprehend.
Shakespeare. Tolstoy. Joyce. Toni Morrison. The Grimm Brothers. Our wildest tales tell our most profound truths, truths as commanding, as real, as commandments chiseled in stone tablets. Our stories, like the stories in The Things They Carried, give a shred of meaning to the incomprehensible, the bewildering, the utterly terrible.
Without stories, the names of our dead soldiers on a wall – like Dickey Y’s – are no more than that. Simply names. Just words on a wall.
But stories, told well, bring honor to the dead. And peace to those who have to go on living.