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Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 29, 2017
Category: Fiction

When I went to Costa Rica — into the rain forest and a climate that can be like Vietnam — I took along the paperback of “The Things They Carried.” 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.

What’s so great? The people. 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.

And what they carry. O’Brien spells it out:

Every third or fourth man carried a claymore antipersonnel mine, 3.5 pounds with its firing device. They all carried fragmentation grenades, 14 ounces each. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade, 24 ounces. Some carried CS or tear gas grenades. Some carried white phosphorous grenades. They carried all they could bear and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

The phrase is, as you see, both literal and metaphor. And that’s its ultimate appeal, that’s why it was a Pulitzer finalist and has sold 2 million copies and is on an Amazon list of 10 necessary books. And it’s why kids love it. As O’Brien says, “The young bring such fervor to it that comes from their own lives, really. The book is… applied to a bad childhood or a broken home. And these are the things they’re carrying.” [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

If we were talking about fiction, we’d 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.” He’s 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 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.

“I was a coward. I went to the war.” Those two sentences haunt me. They’ll haunt you. Even if you don’t read the book, you’ll never forget them.