Book Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I had forgotten the joys of perusing books in libraries, but my present inability to afford to buy books has brought it back.  I’ve found a number of quality books I would have never thought of reading, among them this classic short story collection.  The cover touts it as a twentieth anniversary edition, although the book was first published in 1990, which would make it twenty-five years old now.  I picked up a crisp, clean hardcover copy, newly acquired by the library and possibly never read before.  Nice.

Anyway, Tim O’Brien is an award-winning author known for his books on Vietnam, and I haven’t read too many of his works before.  I know that I read the short story “The Things They Carried” in some anthology years ago, but that’s about it.

This is a very good short story collection.  Some of the stories are superb and rank among the best short stories I have ever read.  I’ll get to those in a moment.  Generally, O’Brien writes in an autobiographical tone, even using his own name when he refers to himself as a first-person character.  It’s hard to know what’s fiction and what’s fact in the collection, and O’Brien alludes to that, intimating that it doesn’t matter.  He alternates between referring to himself as a middle-aged writer in the States looking back on the war, and himself as a foot soldier in the war along with his platoon buddies who supply the material for the stories.

Evidently O’Brien went to the war begrudgingly, having been drafted, and the fear and proximity to death and hellish things he saw and experienced changed him, of course, and writing about it got it out of his system.  Sort of.  It came to me that Vietnam was to O’Brien what the Klondike was to Jack London – a treasure trove of story – but the analogy is flawed.  London went to Klondike seeking adventure and story material.  O’Brien was dragged to Vietnam by the U.S. government.

The book brings out the insanity of the war, all right, from the perspective of those on the ground.  It’s a series of grotesque images and descriptions of how the GIs coped with their terror.  They were just young kids, after all, some of them still teens, when they were pulled away from their families and schools and girl friends and so on and thrust into combat.  Most of them were clueless as to why they were there.  The situation wasn’t as clear-cut as it was, say, during World War Two, when people were fighting for world freedom.  This was a civil war that sprang from a colonial war of liberation of the Vietnamese from the French, and the kids on the front lines had only the vaguest idea of the politics involved.

The stories themselves are dark, every one of them.  Considering their subject matter, there is really no alternative.  The Vietnam War was a dark period in the American consciousness.  Even in the movie “Good Morning Vietnam,” which has its moments of comedy, the darkness bleeds through.

“The Things They Carry” is the most celebrated and famous story in the collection.  It’s perhaps the most accomplished from a literary point of view, but I would not say it’s the best.  Two stories absolutely floored me with their brilliance, and another came close.  One was a first-person emotional piece called “On the Rainy River” in which a young man, purportedly O’Brien himself, about to be drafted, snaps, gets in his car, and drives for the Canadian border.  His conscience cannot allow him to participate in the war, so he has decided to flee.  Along the river that separates Canada from the United States he pulls into a fishing camp.  It’s off-season and the place is empty except for the owner, an old man over eighty years old.  The fleeing youth spends several days with the old man, who never attempts to confide in or argue with him, but his reassuring presence stabilizes the youth, who finally decides to go back and accept being drafted and sent off to war.  O’Brien makes it clear that he considers it the less honorable and more cowardly solution, but the protagonist does it mainly out of embarrassment.  He could never face his family and all those he knew if he didn’t go through with it.

The strongest story in the book for me, though, and what I consider an example of a perfectly executed short story, if there is such a thing, is “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.”  It’s dark as hell itself.  It gave me the shivers.  I couldn’t put it down.  A platoon is stationed on a remote outpost on a hill surrounded by jungle along with a few other troops and a group of Green Berets, who the other military personnel call “Greenies.”  The platoon members are talking about the women they left behind, and one of them says he’ll invite his girlfriend for a visit.  Lo and behold, weeks later, the seventeen-year-old girl shows up on a supply helicopter, young and cute and innocent.  At first it all seems idyllic, and the soldier and his sweetheart share a bunker, renew their relationship, and even get engaged.  The girl enjoys herself by swimming in the nearby river, taking short walks, and learning to shoot.  Gradually, though, the spirit of the war grips her and she begins to change.  She loses her innocence.  She goes out on patrol with the Greenies for days and weeks at a time.  She leaves her boyfriend and stays with the Greenies in their compound, where she takes to burning incense, chanting strange songs, and wearing a copper necklace laced with human tongues around her neck.  When her boyfriend tries to take her back, claiming that she doesn’t belong there, she tells him that he’s the one who doesn’t belong, that she has grown enamored of the land and loves the ecstasy and terror of patrolling through the Vietnamese countryside.  In the end, she disappears into the jungle and never returns, although those remaining at the outpost claim that they can sense her presence in the darkness when they go on patrol.  This story is amazingly effective in its descent into darkness.  It reminds me of Jack London stories such as “In a Far Country” and “The Red One,” both of which describe intruders succumbing to dark, haunting alien lands.  It also reminds me of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Run Through the Jungle,” which has a similar dark tone.

All in all, this is an excellent collection and O’Brien is a great writer.  It’s short, but it works at this length.  And O’Brien is spare with his words; for the most part, the prose is straightforward and free of embellishment, which is as it should be.  Recommended.

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