book response: The Things They Carried by O'Brien 1990

I'm always open to recommendations on war memoirs. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is one of those books. I could not believe that a book published 23 years ago is in such demand still, that I had to get on the waiting list, to borrow the digital version from my library. When I started it, from the cover, I noticed it was listed as a work of fiction and was not sure how to proceed. However, as O'Brien explains in the book, no war story is true, at least from the first person perspective, because that perspective is so limited and so warped by the intensity of the moment.

His stories, and this is a collection of stories, are horrific. They are crafted and honed by a very good storyteller, he even tells how he added and took away elements from one story, Speaking of Courage, as he rewrote it for this collection. I believe his stories have plenty of truth, as I've found fiction hardly ever approaches reality in strangeness and capriciousness. But, by telling us he is writing fiction, O'Brien gets to use the label as a shield from judgement as he relates war atrocities he witnessed and may have participated in. He can write in first person something he might have done without actually confessing to it. I think this was a brilliant move on O'Brien's part. His writing is brilliant as well. His craft is top shelf. Although this isn't Vietnam's novel, like Red Badge of Courage is for the American Civil War, it is an excellent testament to Vietnam.

One story grabbed me emotionally, Speaking of Courage. I identified with the Bible believing Baptist, a native American from Oklahoma named Kiowa, whom O'Brien described in all his dimensions. He's not presented as a one dimensional Bible thumper, but as a believer with a heritage distinct from his comrades, and foibles that his faith did not keep him from. He was a great soldier and friend, yet he died in a random and terrifying way. As a Bible thumper myself, I imagined the story behind the story, the world Kiowa lived in, that even O'Brien might not have known. When he died, I lost a friend. He was a representative of me in the story. I mourned for Kiowa as well.

O'Brien says he never suffered nightmares after he came home. But he says his stress, his therapy, is manifest as a compulsive story teller of the Vietnam war. This book is unique in my reading of war memoirs, I can't compare it to anything else, but I am more than happy to pass on the recommendation to read it.


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