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Vietnam War novel up next for city readers

Chicago Suntimes (07/23/2003)
Gary Wisby and Annie Sweeney

Mayor Daley fretted Thursday that his book club might have a tough time worming its way onto Page 1.

“ You won’t read the Sun-Times headline on this, will ya?” he said of the “One Book, One Chicago” program and complaining about Thursday’s front-page account of the shooting of gang founder Willie Lloyd.

Au contraire, your honor.

The mayor’s program has made Page 1 three out of the four previous times it has launched a new novel since it began in 2001. The Sun-Times ran a front-page story when the first book, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, was announced in August 2001. And both My Antonia and Raisin in the Sun were highlighted on the front.

And now, the next selection.

A harrowing novel about a U.S. platoon in Vietnam, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is the latest book Daley wants Chicagoans to read together.

Daley, announcing the choice at the Canaryville branch of the Chicago Public Library, said he had just finished reading it.

The things carried by the novel’s characters include “weapons, gear and tangible feelings and emotions,” Daley said. “At different points, it’s impossible to discern what is fact from what is fiction.”

The narrator’s name is Tim O’Brien, and he shares some of the author’s background. Reached at his home in Austin, Texas, O’Brien said the book is fiction nonetheless.

O’Brien opposed the war when he was drafted in 1969 and considers himself “a coward” for not running away to Canada. “In emotional terms, that was worse than anything I experienced in the war,” O’Brien said. “I loved my country. My father was a sailor during World War II, and my mother was a WAVE. I felt trapped, paralyzed.”

About the author

Tim O’Brien, 56, was born in the small Minnesota town of Austin and grew up in Worthington, the “Turkey Capital of the World,” but also small.

At Macalester College in St. Paul in the ’60s, he was part of the anti-war movement, graduating in 1968 with a degree in political science and a draft notice.

He ended up in the infantry in what has been called the “unlucky” U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry Division (AMERICAL) because of its involvement in the My Lai massacre, about which O’Brien writes in his novel In the Lake of the Woods.

After his tour ended in 1970, O’Brien entered graduate school at Harvard but left to do an internship with the Washington Post. With the publication of his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Send Me Home, he deserted journalism to devote himself full time to fiction.

Since then, he has published seven novels, most dealing with Vietnam.

O’Brien was a longtime resident of Cambridge, Mass., but moved to another Austin--the one in Texas--to teach creative writing at Southwest Texas State University in nearby San Marcos.
Gary Wisby

He said his experience as an infantryman, from which he returned with a Purple Heart, was a coming-of-age story.

“ I came in innocent and suddenly found out a lot about myself and others, about lies and the horrible things we do to other people,” he said. “I grew up fast.”

At Daley’s news conference, Chuck Meyer of Facing History and Ourselves, a teacher development organization, held up one of the things he carried in Vietnam--a battered Instamatic 404 camera. His voice broke as he described another carried item, an engraved bracelet from his fiancee, now his wife.

O’Brien’s book is “a discomforting but compelling read,” Meyer said.

The Things They Carried was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Another of O’Brien’s books-- Going After Cacciato, about an Army deserter--won the National Book Award in 1979.

Eugene Wildman, director of creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said, “The title story is as good a war story as anybody probably could write.”

He teaches the book in many of his classes “to students who typically were raised on John Wayne, gung-ho, flag-waving movies,” Wildman said.

“ It’s another look at what war is like by someone who has been there, done that. And it’s no John Wayne movie,” he said.

October events celebrating O’Brien’s novel will include a visit by the author for a public discussion and book-signing.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble players John Mahoney and Frank Galati will read selections from The Things They Carried, and the Old Town School of Folk Music will salute the book with a “community song circle.”

DePaul University will offer a graduate-level course featuring the novel and will host a staged reading and panel discussion about it. On Saturdays, the Harold Washington Library Center will present free screenings of the Vietnam movies “Apocalypse Now Redux,” “Platoon,” “Deer Hunter” and “Regret to Inform.”

Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey said 2,000 new copies of The Things They Carried will be available in library branches.