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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Tim O'Brien
(b. 1946)

After a small-town Minnesota childhood and a college education at Macalaster (class president, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), Tim O’Brien was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968 and served one year as an infantryman in the American conflict in Vietnam. The war, which appears in all seven of his published books, constitutes a central focus of his uncollected writings; yet in interviews O’Brien repeatedly objects to being labeled a Vietnam War writer: “It’s like calling Toni Morrison a black writer or Shakespeare a king writer.” His concerns as a writer resonate beyond the battlefield: the subjective nature of experience, the life of the imagination, the grip of the past, control and its loss, love, betrayal, obsession, language, guilt, rage, death, moral ambiguity, mental and emotional instability, and storytelling as a means of coping with it all. Nevertheless, his personal experience of that war, along with his midwestern background, provided him a site for his literary explorations of the human condition in late-twentieth-century American life.

Three of his books—one work of nonfiction and two works of fiction—deal directly with the war experience: If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), Going After Cacciato (1978), and The Things They Carried (1990). Going After Cacciato, his third book and second novel, won the National Book Award. The book takes place largely in the mind of Paul Berlin as he keeps himself awake on guard duty by remembering actual events and fancifully imagining what might have been. Berlin imagines his squad chasing the deserting Cacciato all the way to Paris, and his imagination transforms this initial act of what if into a tale that includes an echo of Alice in Wonderland and a Socratic exchange on the morality of the war, a tale that dramatizes Berlin’s own desire to escape the war and to deny his own culpability. O’Brien’s intellectual approach to the war is significantly informed by his political science graduate study at Harvard in the early 1970s; his unfinished doctoral dissertation is titled “Case Studies in American Military Interventions.”

O’Brien’s fourth work of fiction, The Things They Carried, is a collection of previously published and new stories, brought together, revised, and arranged to make a thematically unified work much like Hemingway’s In Our Time and Joyce’s Dubliners. The story printed in the anthology, “In the Field,” comes from this book. Several of its stories are narrated by a character named “Tim O’Brien,” who remains distinct from the author. The presence of “Tim O’Brien” underscores one of the novel’s major conceits: the difference between “happening-truth” and “story-truth,” or what actually happened versus what we say happened as factual events are received through our limited perspective and then transformed by memory, by the nature of storytelling, and by quasi-willful acts of reinvention for psychic survival.

O’Brien’s other novels, including Tomcat in Love (1997), turn from war to romantic love between men and women as another source of conflict, ambiguity, shame, and haunting history. Northern Lights (1975), his first and by his own judgment his worst novel, pits two brothers—one a recently returned veteran—against one another, against the women in their lives, and against mother nature. Set in the future of 1995, The Nuclear Age (1985) presents a man struggling with his wife’s adultery and his own obsession with nuclear war while simultaneously reliving a turbulent past of being in love with a militant anti-war activist. Paul Wade, the protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods (1994), is a politician who just lost an election after the newspapers exposed his presence during the atrocities against Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, and who wakes one morning to find that his wife has vanished.

What happens to Paul Wade’s wife? What happens to bring about Kiowa’s death in the following story? Tim O’Brien’s fiction frequently resists answering the what happens questions to emphasize that who we are is far more manifold, layered, and mysterious than such questions pretend.

Alex Vernon
Hendrix College

In the Heath Anthology
In the Field (1990)

Other Works

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Artful Dodge
Transcript of an interview on war writing conducted by Daniel Bourne and Debra Shostak.

The Vietnam in Me
An article by O'Brien originally published in The New York Times, October 1994.

Writing Vietnam
A transcript of O'Brien's President's lecture at Brown University, April 1999.

Secondary Sources

Catherine Calloway, "Tim O'Brien: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography," Bulletin of Bibliography 50.3, 1993

Tina Chen, "'Unraveling the Deeper Meaning': Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried," Contemporary Literature 39.1, 1998

Tobey C. Herzog, Tim O'Brien, 1997

Steve Kaplan, Understanding Tim O'Brien, 1995

Farrell O'Gorman, "The Things They Carried as Composite Novel," War, Literature & The Arts 10.2, 1998

Lorrie N. Smith, "'The Things Men Do': The Gendered Subtest in Tim O'Brien's Esquire Stories," Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 36.1, 1994

Mark Taylor, "Tim O'Brien's War," The Centennial Review 39.2, 1995