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Tim O’Brien: In the Lake of the Woods

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

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.