Monday, March 19, 2007

Review of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

“The Things They Carried” is another one of those books I had been looking forward to reading for quite some time; I finally carved out the time to give it the attention it deserves. My reading of this Tim O’Brien masterpiece coincided with my reading of the book I reviewed last week: “Achilles in Vietnam.” Together, these two works provide timely and insightful glimpses into the lives of those who fought in Vietnam – and by extension, those who have recently fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

O’Brien, himself a Vietnam veteran, has crafted a book that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize – and deservedly so. He fictionalized his personal experiences in Vietnam just enough to generalize the truths he learned as he was surrounded by colleagues who died, or who struggled to stay alive against long odds in the most hostile of environments in Southeast Asia.

I found this book to be personally helpful and healing. I am a member of the Vietnam War generation who did not serve in the military, but I had many contemporaries who volunteered or were drafted and went off to war. Some never returned, and most of those who did return were reluctant to talk about what they saw and experienced over there. As a result, my sense of what happened over there has always felt like an undeveloped photo. O’Brien’s thoughtful book provided the toner to bring the picture into focus in my mind. I grew up and went though school with John H., who lived a few blocks away. I remember him as a red-headed, freckled-faced Energizer Bunny on the basketball court of our junior high school team. He was a point guard long before I ever heard that term being used, weaving in and out of the larger bodies on the court, passing and scoring at will. He went off to Vietnam and died over there. I never learned the circumstances of his death. So, as I read this book, I pictured John H. as one of the protagonists. It helped to bring some closure and healing to a chronic open would.

O’Brien seamlessly blends fiction with autobiography, and he uses as the structure of the novel the things that soldiers and Marines carried with them in Vietnam. He begins with a list of the literal and concrete “things” that they carried on their persons:

“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha . . . The things they carried were largely determined by necessities. Among the near necessities and near-necessities were P-338 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellant, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canisters of water.” (Pages 1-2)

O’Brien deftly evolves his narrative account to blend concrete objects with less tangible burdens that the men carried:

“Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. The shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself – Vietnam, the place, the soil – a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. The carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, the carried it, the humidity, the monsoon, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.” (Pages 14-15)

This is gritty, pithy, evocative and beautiful writing. The author, continuing to unburden himself of a load he has been carrying around in his own soul for close to 30 years, takes his recounting of “the things they carried” to the next logical level; he offers descriptions of the things - the invisible things - carried in their hearts and minds and the dark recesses of their spirits:

“For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity . . . They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intanglibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. The carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. .. By and large, they carried these things inside, maintaining the masks of composure.” (Pages 19-22)

The rest of the book represents development of these themes that O’Brien has laid out in the first movement of his symphonic poem – an elegy for the enlisted men who died and an ode to the officers who remained faithful to their calling. He offers specific images and vignettes - some heart-breaking in their poignancy – of life in the mud and trenches and rice paddies of Vietnam.

This book is a love letter to those who died, a note of encouragement to those who lived and who still carry the weight of memory, and a signal flare to those of us who never experienced the horrors of war in Vietnam. That flare illuminates the darkness that enveloped that war and those who fought it when they returned home to a nation that wanted quickly to forget and turn out the light on that war and those who were returning, carrying with them the orange-red dust of death.

Tim O’Brien is an insightful and gifted writer. He carries with grace and dignity the knowledge he brought back from Vietnam, and he shares it generously with those who are willing to add the burden of that uncomfortable knowledge to their own personal psychic baggage. I plan to seek out and read his other works. He has a lot to say. He says it well, and it is worth listening to.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks alot, I appreciated your views on this book and it helped me out a lot for a school project