- Josh Ritter, “Homecoming” (from Sermon On the Rocks), in performance. Stick around to watch him bounce, starting at 5:00.


Tim O’Brien: In the Lake of the Woods

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jun 22, 2017
Category: Fiction

SHOPPING ON AMAZON: The business model of this site is Amazon. You start here, buy something there, Butler gets a commission. And not just on the item reviewed. Anything you buy during a session that starts with a click from Butler helps this site. (Do you need a refrigerator? A Mickey Mantle Autographed Card Set, a bargain at $90,000? Please start here.) There are two ways to get to Amazon. 1) Click on a specific link on a Butler review. Or just click here. Many thanks.

Love: Forever Changes
The l964 Civil Right Murders

THE MOVIE TO SEE: ‘Beatrix at Dinner’

Someone lost a special election in Georgia — an election he had scant chance of winning — by 9,000 votes, and if you read the commentary, you’d think it was a devastating defeat. Wrong. A soul-crushing defeat is the kind you read about in a book like this. And what follows is worse…

At 37, John Wade was Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota. At 40, he ran for the U.S. Senate. He was heavily favored to win. At 41, he wasn’t just beaten in the primary, he was crushed — “loser by landslide.”

What happened?

John Wade had a secret. As secrets will, it came out at the worst possible time. And, suddenly, he was no longer a rising star — he was a war criminal, a killer of babies, a man to be shunned.

His secret was My Lai.

The Vietnam War is now so far from us, and American history — especially the history of a war we lost — is so sketchily taught, and some of you are so very young that I really ought to take a minute here and, in quick brushstrokes, relate what happened in a little Vietnam village on March 16, 1968.

Better idea: let Tim O’Brien tell it. He arrived in Vietnam a year later, and served as a foot soldier there for a year. Got wounded, got traumatized, the whole deal. Here’s his account:

At approximately 7:30 on the morning, a company of roughly 115 American soldiers was inserted by helicopter just outside the village of My Lai. They met no resistance. No enemy. No incoming fire. Still, for the next four hours, Charlie Company killed whatever could be killed. They killed chickens. They killed dogs and cattle. They killed people, too. Lots of people. Women, infants, teen-agers, old men. The United States Army’s Criminal Investigation Division compiled a list of 343 fatalities and an independent Army inquiry led by Lieut. Gen. William R. Peers estimated that the death count may have exceeded 400. At the Son My Memorial, a large tablet lists 504 names. According to Col. William Wilson, one of the original Army investigators, "The crimes visited on the inhabitants of Son My Village included individual and group acts of murder, rape, sodomy, maiming, assault on noncombatants and the mistreatment and killing of detainees."

Eventually, after a cover-up that lasted more than a year and after the massacre made nationwide headlines, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division produced sufficient evidence to charge 30 men with war crimes. Of these, only a single soldier — First Lieut. William Laws Calley, Jr. — was ever convicted or spent time in prison. Found guilty of the premeditated murder of "not less than" 22 civilians, Calley was sentenced to life at hard labor, but after legal appeals and sentence reductions, his ultimate jail time amounted to three days in a stockade and four and a half months in prison.

Terrible, terrible. But in fiction, O’Brien doesn’t play judge and jury. John Wade may have been at My Lai and done terrible things there, but he found a way to live with his shame. And here’s the remarkable thing — Tim O’Brien bends over backward to see it Wade’s way. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

What I tell you now may seem like a plot “spoiler.” It’s not. “In the Lake of the Woods” is a mystery — maybe even a thriller — that’s totally innovative in form. That is, we know right off that something happened. The first question is: What happened? And then a gloomier question: Who did it?

What we know: After the primary defeat, John Wade and his wife Kathy retreat to a cabin in the Lake of the Woods, a part of Northern Minnesota so remote that there’s nothing but water and islands between it and Canada. Thirty-six hours later, Kathy disappears.

Did she flee?

Did she drown?

Did her husband — reliving his Vietnam experience — kill her and dump her body into the lake?

Not easy questions. And O’Brien doesn’t answer them: “I tried to make each hypothesis plausible. John may have killed Kathy. Or Kathy may have run off with someone else. Or maybe she simply drowned. Or got lost in that vast wilderness. I believed in each hypothesis as I wrote it. I inserted evidence to support each hypothesis — just as life itself gives us contradictory evidence about a great many things. But in the end, it’s all a mystery, insoluble, beyond certainty.”

And to make it more mysterious, O’Brien tells the story from multiple perspectives. Offers testimony from many people. Cites historical documents. And then amps up the uncertainly by giving Wade a hobby — magic.

And maybe that’s what it comes down to — an ungainly kid, an abusive father, a need for approval that never got satisfied. As O’Brien writes:

"A fat little kid doing magic in front of a stand-up mirror. ‘Hey, kiddo, that’s a good one,’ his father could’ve said, but for reasons unknown, reasons mysterious, the words never got spoken. He had wanted to be loved. And to be loved he had practiced deception. He had hidden the bad things. He had tricked up his own life. Only for love. Only to be loved."

Too simple? A clue that takes you away from the solution? Could be: O’Brien is that good. (He won the National Book Award for "Going After Cacciato." The New York Times named The Things They Carried as one of the best books of the year in 1990 — and chose “In the Lake of the Woods” for that list four years later.)

This much is sure: You start “In the Lake of the Woods” expecting one kind of book and quickly get another, darker, scarier book. You find yourself thinking “God, this is awful,” even as you read faster and faster. You cringe at what Wade might have done, wince for what might have been done to him. And, as he comes apart, so do you.

This is a harrowing book, as grown-up as it gets. It’s a great story, masterfully told. And then it demands your honest opinion — because, Lord knows, we too have our secrets.

Short Takes

Eve Stuart: “The world in a grain of sand”

Eve Stuart’s photography show opens at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, New York on July 1 and will be up until August 5. These are tasty images, at once familiar and mysterious. As she writes: “I’m drawn to scenes where there are many layers, where you don’t see everything all at once. I particularly love the Polaroid transfer process because it heightens this experience of many layers. The pieces have a very romantic, painterly quality; you can’t always tell if it’s a painting or a photograph.” Eve’s a friend. I’ve seen these images. Her description is just right. For more of the work in the show, click here. For Eve Stuart’s web site, click here.

The first beach read of the summer: “The Finishing School”

I went to the kind of New England boarding school that makes you feel — wrongly — superior to the high school graduates when you get to college, so it was quite a shock for me to discover an elite even more elite than the preppies: the kids who’d gone to school in Switzerland. It was thus a pleasure to read Joanna Goodman’s “The Finishing School,” a novel that focuses on Kersti Kuusk, a scholarship student in the 1990s at the Lycée Internationale Suisse, and Cressida, her beautiful, rich classmate. Kersti has gone on to become a bestselling novelist. Naturally the school invites her to speak at its100th birthday celebration. And the trouble starts: In 1998, Cressida jumped or was pushed off a balcony at the Lycée. She’s still technically alive, but she’ll never be able to tell her story. What would a writer of historical women’s fiction do? You guessed it. “The Finishing School” drops all the right names, but it’s far from an exercise in snobbery. Its subjects are young love and lust, privilege and striving, and faculty-student relations that redefine that term. There’s a missing ledger and a dark secret, and the story is as tasty as braised lamb shanks and as easy to swallow as a good Riesling — add this to your stack of beach reads. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Owen Lewis: “When a man loves a woman…”

When we last read Owen Lewis, it was 2015, and the psychiatrist/teacher/poet had just published “Best Man.” The title could not have been more ironic or bittersweet — the 23 poems were about his brother Jason, who died in 1980, age 23. Jason was the tragedy every family fears: a bright, drugged thief and liar. Here the dead talk, and the survivor talks back. [To buy the paperback of “Best Man” from Amazon, click here.] “Marriage Map,” in contrast, is about his enviable second marriage. The quotation from Homer that is the book’s epigram signals the tone: “There is nothing nobler or more admirable than when two people who see eye to eye keep house as man and wife.” But a second marriage invariably invites contrasts. In the first poem, “The day I met you/ a crane fell, smashing cars, slicing six/ stories of corners off a building.” Owen calls Susan to explain the trouble. She says she has a “Plan B.” He’s breathless. More accurately, she’s holding his breath — the breath of a man whose marriage is, like the crane, collapsing. The last line: “Who had ever considered for me a ‘Plan B’?” In these poems, love revives him, strengthens and affirms him. But not without cost. In a second marriage, you can’t avoid the shadows of all that’s come before: “We bring an in-gathering/ of exiles, taken from themselves/ scattered along the rivers of home.” So here are his brother, parents, first wife. Shining through is the simple fact of an abiding romance: “We make of time what we will… This wedding starts again, forever.” These poems are moonlight through a bedroom window. [To buy “Marriage Map” from Amazon, click here.]

The answer to the question in the title of “What to Do About the Solomons” — read it.

American Jews in Israel. An inheritance, which means money and a lot more. Back in Los Angeles, a son’s alleged financial crime — what kind of crime did you expect? — has become a family scandal. Not promising material, when you consider how Jews are presented in American fiction. The writer loves them. Or the writer hates them (or, more correctly, hates herself/himself). And in a first novel yet! I ask you: What was the last great first novel you read about Jews? Goodbye, Columbus. Okay, what else?

Bethany Ball’s “What To Do About The Solomons” is my favorite length for fiction: blessedly short. But in those 235 pages, we get a large — there are so many characters that Ball starts the book with a Solomon family tree — and unruly clan. They’re like moose with antlers locked: They can’t get closer, they can’t get apart. But you’ll have no trouble telling them apart. And coming to like them, for very different reasons.

For a novel about Real and Serious Things, this is a very funny book. Bethany Ball writes with wit as sharp as the blade of a mohel. For once, I totally concur with a New York Times review: “I ended ‘What to Do About the Solomons’ absolutely swimming with affection, not just for the characters but for the multiple worlds that created them. Despite their collective penchant for psychodrama, there’s something profoundly lovely — and loving — about the Solomons. And about Bethany Ball’s debut.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]