I really thought that I knew what this book was. I thought it was a personal account of Vietnam, a memoir, a gritty rough, “you’ll feel like you were there,” aggressively macho read. And for the reason, I never read it. There’s nothing wrong with a book like that (well yes there are, but what I mean is books like that have every right to exist), but I wasn’t going to spend my time reading one. But then my anthropology professor assigned us the titular story from this collection, and by the time I was 5 pages in I was teary eyed and e-mailing my dad to request his copy.
It’s hard to classify, it’s stories, they’re fiction. But it’s also pretty clearly rooted in Tim O’Brien’s lived experience (both of Vietnam and life after), and it can be hard to tell where the blurry edge of fact and creation is. That’s by design, there are whole chapters in here that are just extended authorial tangents on the notion of truth and the importance of stories. How Truth, particularly about traumas like wars, is often untellable, but stories can help us understand. He’s able to say it much more eloquently than I can. You should just read the book. (Which apparently, most of you already have. I feel like the only American my age who wasn’t assigned it in high school. But I’m glad I read it now, being older than most of the boys actually made me feel more deeply the loss not just of the ones who died but also of the non-soldier lives of the others. Because as O’Brien’s career attests, that shit sticks with you.)
What I really loved was the emotional frankness. He doesn’t seem to give a shit anymore about maintaining the bravado that being a soldier required of him. He was scared and sad and also exhilarated and he lets us all know that. He sees the flaws in his actions, but he maintains an amazing level of compassion for why his younger self did what he did. It’s emotional and filled with sentiment, but somehow never succumbs to sentimentality. I’ll be thinking about it for a very long time.