I was fortunate to catch Tim O’Brien, one of my favorite authors, at local reading earlier this month. He spoke eloquently about war, how it can shape a young man’s life, and what it can do to our country. But he wasn’t talking about Iraq or Afghanistan. When Tim O’Brien talks about war, he talks about Vietnam.
Beyond his devotion to exploring the Vietnam war, O’Brien stands out for me by his willingness to bend the rules of fiction and narrative. In The Things They Carried, he intentionally blurs the line between fact and fiction by naming his lead character Tim O’Brien, and then making him a writer who returns from Vietnam haunted by the war, subsequently devoting his life to writing about it. In his only memoir (If I Die In a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home), he writes in a straight-forward manner about his tour of duty. It was his first attempt at writing about the war. Although it’s not a bad effort, it lacks the power of his fiction.
O’Brien is at his best when he is searching for the truth, not trying to relay mere facts. He spent most of night discussing the literal truths that were the basis for his fictional account of the war in The Things They Carried. I found it fascinating. You can determine some of this yourself by reading both his memoir and his fiction. Or you can just ask him. Forty years later and he still loves to talk about Vietnam. Maybe as writers we need that same kind of passion about something to get at anything worthwhile. It’s certainly worked for Tim O’Brien.
Most interesting fact discovered: In O’Brien’s fictional account of the war, Henry Dobbins famously carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a good luck charm. In real life, O’Brien carried the pantyhose.