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New terrain

Boston Globe (10/08/2002)

By David Mehegan

Known as the definitive Vietnam War novelist, Tim O’Brien takes himself out of his element

Here we are in Onion Creek, one of those ubiquitous communities in southern climes, built around a golf course on somebody’s old pasture or ranchland. No shrub or blade of grass is out of place. The taxi stops at a beige Mediterranean-style house with four Corinthian columns and a white metal fence. One rings the bell, half expecting some brassy Texas stereotype to appear, but the door is opened by a smiling slim man in a baseball cap, brown shorts, and a Boston Red Sox T-shirt.

It’s novelist Tim O’Brien, 56, born in Minnesota, tempered by war in Vietnam, longtime denizen of Cambridge, Mass., and author of such books as “Going After Cacciato,” “The Things They Carried,” “In the Lake of the Woods,” and the just-published “July, July.”

We sit in plushy red chairs at his dining room table while our reflections in a full-wall mirror look back at us. His unlined face and ever-present baseball cap make him seem younger than he is, and there’s a restlessness in his speech and manner. He switches on an air filter and lights up the first of many cigarettes.

The seeming incongruity of this setting takes a while to wear off. Not that it’s intrinsically strange - O’Brien is here because he teaches writing at Southwest Texas State University, in nearby San Marcos. It’s just that one associates O’Brien, the celebrated chronicler of men in war, with a rougher, darker, gloomier setting. But then, in his new book, as in his life, he has moved to a new setting.

“July, July” is the story of a 31st reunion of Darton Hall College, a weekend ordeal in which old friends, lovers, or marriage partners reveal, recalibrate, and try to refashion their private lives. O’Brien’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, writes that with this new book, “America’s master storyteller of the Vietnam experience turns his acute sensibility to new territory.”

True enough, it seems, yet O’Brien bridles at the idea that he has changed. “I find it disgusting,” he says. “I thought I was moving away from Vietnam with ‘The Things They Carried’ [in 1990]. It was about storytelling and the power of story to console and heal and imagine better worlds. My concerns will always be the same: being lost, the power of fantasy in our lives, moral decision-making, its ambiguity. In that sense, with “July, July” I have not moved a millimeter from my own terrain.”

His natal terrain was Worthington, Minn. - “the turkey capital of the world” - a small community just north of the Iowa state line where O’Brien’s father, a World War II Navy veteran, sold insurance and his mother taught school. As soon as O’Brien, eldest of three children, graduated from Macalester College in 1968, he was drafted. Destination: Vietnam.

Some draftees refused to go, and some went to Canada (such an emigrant is a character in “July, July”). But for O’Brien, the social pressure to serve in a war he opposed proved too strong. He reported for duty and spent one violent and fearful year as an infantryman in Vietnam. That moral tussle is recounted in his 1973 memoir, “If I Die in a Combat Zone” and more vividly in fictional form in “The Things They Carried.” He says it is with him still. “I had a terror of ridicule and humiliation, the sense of reputation collapsing,” he says. “That terror of embarrassment that sent me to Vietnam, and the guilt, I still carry around with me. I have always found it difficult to say no to anything, or anyone, about anything, to disappoint them. I want them to like me, to make them happy - the standard bad approach to the world. It has affected and informed my life from the time I was a little boy until now.”

Though slightly wounded once by shrapnel, he survived the mines and snipers and booby-trapped 105mm shells that carried off many friends. Just before he was drafted, he had been accepted in a PhD program in political science at Harvard. He flew home from the war in March 1970 and within months was on his way to Cambridge - yet a new landscape, as different from the southern Minnesota prairie as the villages of Quang Ngai province. “I got back from the war,” he says, “hugged my mom and dad, saw my brother and sister, and then it seemed like it was time to start packing for Harvard. You can’t imagine the feeling of being one minute in a war and the next minute at Harvard. It was like a dream.”

He threw himself into his studies, but a doctorate in political science was not to be. “I had an incredible desire from the time I was 8 years old to be a writer,” he says. There was the war, of course, but “I had to have something to write about that wasn’t just Vietnam. ... Part of it was guilt - that I am still alive and there are all those dead guys back there - and the guilt of having gone in the first place. To this day I wonder, `Did it really happen? Did I do those things? It was as if Vietnam had collided with this desire to write, an accident in the middle of an intersection, that opened the door of possibility, that this is something I can do and have to do.”

He began to write late at night. In 1973, he published his memoir, which he had started in Vietnam. It was well received, and then Seymour Lawrence, his New York editor and publisher, called and asked him if he had ever considered fiction. Indeed, he had worked on a novel off and on. With Lawrence’s encouragement, he threw himself into “Northern Lights,” and it was published in 1975. In 1978 came O’Brien’s breakthrough book, “Going After Cacciato,” a fantastic voyage of a platoon in Vietnam that pursues an AWOL soldier all the way to Paris. It won the National Book Award.

He was still at Harvard, but he had published three books, and it was clear he was not going to become a professor of political science. To his mother’s disappointment, he dropped out and never went back. In 1990 came his smash bestseller, “The Things They Carried,” a novel with overt autobiographical elements - there’s a character named Tim O’Brien.

With “The Things They Carried,” O’Brien became the bard of America’s longest war, standard fare in college and high school literature classes. “He is taught more than any other author on the war,” says librarian John Baky, director of LaSalle University’s collection on the Vietnam War. “Because that war was so driven by the ambiguity of what was real and unreal, he almost embodies the nature of that time. He is the 900-pound gorilla of Vietnam War fiction.”

Even so, for nearly a year in the early-1990s, he tried to quit writing altogether. Part of it, he says, “was that I was going through a terrible time in my life,” which apparently had standard midlife elements. Another part was that even his most acclaimed books had their critics.

“To have spent all these years trying to give pleasure to people,” he says, and to have all this “carping come back at you, it didn’t give me pleasure. I was sick of the loneliness of bottling myself up for four years and not living. It’s tough going into a room every day and spending 12 hours. I thought, maybe there’s a better thing.”

One of the carps was that he couldn’t get off Vietnam. After “The Things They Carried” came “In the Lake of the Woods,” in 1994, about an American politician whose life, and wife, are destroyed by revelations of his role in the My Lai massacre. But O’Brien insists he never was a “Vietnam writer”. “Veterans can tell when they read my stuff,” he says. “They tell me, ‘This is not Vietnam,’ and I agree. It’s a context, in the way that the ocean was a context for [Joseph] Conrad.”

In or out of war, O’Brien’s themes include the experience of being literally and psychologically lost, the agony of regretted moral choices, the fantasy that compels us to replay and sometimes revise the past, and the inability of people to hear or understand one another. His characters are tormented by the knowledge that their own decisions, not Lyndon Johnson’s or General Westmoreland’s or fate or luck or the gods, are at the root of all their miseries. They never blame their problems on others.

He never did find a better way to make a living than writing novels - “I’m not a good bowler,” he says with a laugh - and in time he got back to work. He met Meredith Baker in 1995 at one of his readings. They wed last summer; it’s a second marriage for him. In 1998, he published the madcap “Tomcat in Love,” about a professor, a Vietnam vet who yaws between trying to find new love and trying to get his ex-wife back.

“July, July” is far from Vietnam, although the memory of wartime 1969 and the choices the many characters made then hang over the story. It’s about the things of ordinary life: work, marriage, divorce, sickness, quiet aging. And yet, as in the Vietnam books, they look back and wonder, “Why did I do it? What if I had gone the other way? Can I live with the fix I got myself in?”

“July, July” is his eighth book - which, O’Brien says, is not much to show for almost 30 years of work. “I am so slow writing sentences,” he says. He is satisfied with a few of his books, but he is like his characters in endlessly ruminating over what he has done and trying to change it. He has taught at many colleges, and though he doesn’t make much of it, others do. “He’s an incredible teacher,” say Kevin Bowen, director of the Joyner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass-Boston. “I have sat in on his classes, and I’ve had people say they learned more from him in one class than they have learned in whole semesters.”

As late as 1990, with “The Things They Carried,” O’Brien was writing quiet leisured sentences that read like Hemingway’s stories in “In Our Time.” “July, July” has a more revved-up feeling. There’s a sense of time passing quickly, of the itch to fix a mess before it’s too late. A manic angel keeps showing up in different guises, to advise or needle the characters. “I think of it as strict realism,” O’Brien says. “In all my books, things happen that don’t happen in the ordinary world: falling into tunnels, angels talking to characters. Miracles do happen in the world; we’re just unaware of them.”

Writing, it seems, is all-consuming. He works 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and says he has to stick to that schedule to keep up that kind of intensity. “If I go away from it for a week, it’s a bit like waking up from a dream; it’s hard to get back to it.” Does he fish, cook, garden, paint, play music? “This is pretty much what I do,” says. “I don’t have hobbies,” though he does enjoy golf. The words, sentences, voices, characters, are the things he carries. “It haunts me when I’m not writing,” he says, “I mutter to myself when I’m washing dishes or doing laundry, but you can’t go out in public muttering.” He’s already at work on the next novel, even though he’s about to start a 20-city national tour (including a reading Oct. 23 at the Boston Public Library at Copley Square).

Whether it’s a “bad approach to life” or not, O’Brien’s passion to please is the high-octane fuel he runs on, and it has brought him a career and a shelf-full of books. “That is the whole object,” he says, “to give pleasure and learn that pleasure has been received. Even in the hard, sad, grim passages, that this will give pleasure to the whole human being: the scalp, the tear ducts, the heart, and everything.”