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The Things They Carried

Tim O'Brien

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 17, 2010
Category: Fiction

When I went to Costa Rica, I thought to read books set in a hot, wet climate.

Because the Costa Rican rain forest is so much like Vietnam, I took along the paperback of "The Things They Carried." [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. To buy the Kindle edition, click here.]
One afternoon, when the temperature was 95 and so was the humidity, I sat down with this collection of short stories.
Two hours and 271 pages later, I got up.

You don’t get better reading experiences than that.

What’s so great? The people you meet. O’Brien delivers a company of American soldiers during the Vietnam war with unsentimental tenderness: the guy who will get his head blown off seconds after smoking a joint, the guy who will commit suicide years after the war, the guy who will die in the muck, the guys who will find him — and the Vietnamese soldier O’Brien kills. There is no larger war, no deeper significance. Life has been reduced to a jungle and these men.

If we were talking about fiction, we would say something like, ‘The voice of the narrator is strong and authentic.’ But this is something else: memoir served up as fiction. And so the stories read like confessions. Because, in fact, they are.

And no one seems to have more to confess than the narrator, who is, in these pages, called "Tim O’Brien" and who is, I believe, no mere device. In l968, O’Brien was about to graduate with honors from college in Minnesota. He had won a fellowship to Harvard. And then he was drafted.

The story that resonates most for me — because I was also graduating from college in l968 — is "On the Rainy River." In it, O’Brien tries to figure out whether to flee to Canada or face his fate in Vietnam. He has a summer job in his home town in Minnesota; abruptly, he flees and drives north, north toward the border. He gets as far as a lodge before he runs out of courage. No one is there but the aged proprietor, who instinctively knows that this young man is in the throes of crisis.

The old man doesn’t invite O’Brien to talk about his problem, in that new-fangled Oprah way. He just takes him out fishing, and pretends not to notice that O’Brien is sitting there weeping. But his silence means everything: O’Brien makes his decision, and, even more, knows why he made it.

The story ends with O’Brien driving home: ‘The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam , where I was a soldier. I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.’

In fact, Tim O’Brien did not really head for the border; he dutifully took the bus to the induction center. But the fiction has the power of truthful insight: "I was a coward. I went to the war." Indeed, that’s the book in two sentences. But unlike many quickie summaries, it makes you want to read the book.