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Tim O’Brien’s reunion from hell

CNN (10/09/2002)

By Todd Leopold

A college gathering is the subject of author’s ‘July, July’

Tim O’Brien has never been to a college reunion. He’s never been to a high school reunion, for that matter. He is not even sure if he would want to go.

But that hasn’t stopped his imagination from using the setting as the centerpiece of his new book, “July, July” (Houghton Mifflin), featuring a group of ’60s people wondering where their lives went and trying to rekindle their hopes.

At the novel’s fictional Darton Hall College -- loosely modeled on O’Brien’s own alma mater, St. Paul, Minnesota’s, Macalester College -- the Class of ’69 meets for its 30th reunion in July 2000. The fact that it’s actually been 31 years since 1969 is the least of their problems.

In the interim, David Todd has lost a leg in Vietnam; Dorothy Stier has lost a breast to cancer; Spook Spinelli is unhappily married to two men at the same time; Paulette Haslo has left her ministry; and Billy McMann is filled with hatred over his broken relationship with Stier, a relationship that broke up over his draft dodging.

Then there’s Jan Huebner and Amy Robinson, bitter women lamenting their whole lives. And Karen Burns and Harmon Osterberg, who are dead.

O’Brien tells their stories in pieces, sandwiching swatches of time at the reunion between short story-like chapters focusing on a single character. And even though the characters are vastly different, O’Brien says he knows them all intimately.

“They’re all facets of myself,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Austin, Texas, where he teaches creative writing at Southwest Texas State University. “I know what it is to face mortality. Whether they’re male or female, there are elements of myself in all these people.”

Character by character

At first glance, O’Brien would seem to be most similar to Vietnam vet David Todd. He, too, served in Southeast Asia and used it as a physical and psychological setting in his best-known works, the nonfiction work “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” the National Book Award-winning “Going After Cacciato” and the renowned “The Things They Carried.”

The title story of the latter book, a stark accumulation of small details about a platoon of soldiers, won a National Magazine Award and was chosen as one of the “Best American Short Stories of the Century” in the book of that name.

But O’Brien, 56, has been moving away from the war in his more recent works, “In the Lake of the Woods” and “Tomcat in Love.” Indeed, “July, July” began as a story about the reunion, not the war.

“I got a call one day from the fiction editor at Esquire, Rust Hills, who asked if I’d like to write a very short story,” he says in press notes. “This short, 600-word piece left me wanting to know more about the reunion itself and more about these people I invented.”

So he went character by character, coming up with stories that fleshed out their personalities.

“I knew about Spook’s vulnerability, her great sadness, her absence of wholeness,” he says in the phone interview. Another character, overweight mop-and-broom magnate Marv Bertel, hides a great lie from which he can’t escape.

Not all of the characters are likeable, or even sympathetic -- particularly Jan and Amy, who spend the book trying to get drunk and laid in an effort to conceal their unhappiness. O’Brien, who at times seems almost uncomfortable talking about his work, seems to audibly shrug.

“I don’t think of judging characters by liking them,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to go out with Lady Macbeth. ... Unfortunately, life dealt them some bad hands, and now they find themselves with no prospects. But I give them credit for trying.”

A reunion in reality

There’s also the matter of the dead characters: Karen, a trusting, needy soul killed by drug runners; Harmon, a successful, fun-loving dentist who drowns while having an affair with a classmate.

Their relative youth casts a pall over the reunion for the living characters, but O’Brien didn’t question the necessity of their demises.

“If I were to go [to one of these reunions], there are people who would be dead. They’re like ghosts who are there when a group gets together.”

That supernatural touch is more pronounced in another character, a fortune-telling angel named Johnny Ever -- “a bit of God,” O’Brien describes him -- who pops up in various incarnations to several characters. That character changed over the four-year period of writing “July, July,” a period which crossed September 11, O’Brien says.

“September 11 made me want more Johnny,” he says. “He was more modest [before]. ... The voice became more cynical and hard, because that’s how I felt after 9/11. It made me write a book tougher than it had been.”

O’Brien maintains a regular schedule when he’s writing. He’ll turn on the “Today” show at 7 a.m. and within the hour he’s at the computer or writing in longhand. Though he’s written some well-regarded nonfiction, he’s more comfortable with his own creations, he says.

“It gives you the element of imagination. You can’t make up dialogue for Nixon,” he says. “When I’m in a novel ... there’s no time to move away from it. If I leave it, it’s like leaving a dream.”

With his latest dream out, O’Brien is ready to turn his attention to other things. A reunion, he says, may be one of them. At least, he may return to his old college stomping grounds, since they’ve expressed some interest in the new book.

“I got a call from the alumni people,” he says. “They want to do something about it.”