September 30, 2014 in Book Reviews
A friend of mine recently asked me if I had any recommendations for a light, fun read. As it happens, the books I have been reading lately have been dark and it doesn’t get any darker than Vietnam.
I am not a war story gal. The only reason I sought out The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories by Tim O’Brien, is because two different sources hailed its short story of the same name as an example of exquisite short story crafting: he tells an entire story through a list of what the soldiers in Vietnam carried.
Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover.
Not only does he matter-of-factly relate the practicalities of the war in what they had to carry on their backs as they “humped” through the hostile terrain, he depicts the deaths of his fellow soldiers in the same way. In practical terms, Ted Lavender’s death meant rearranging their own packs to absorb his load before requesting a dust-off to retrieve his body.
But of course there is more to it than that: the tension, the fear, the dark humor to keep fear at bay, the guilt, the blame, the claustrophobia of investigating the tunnels, the loved ones back home, and the personalities of these soldiers in a war they were drafted to participate in come rolling in through the fog and the rain and the shadows of the jungles they trek through until the entire breadth of the Vietnam War is captured in a single short story.
I only intended to read the Things They Carried, but I ended up reading the entire collection of short stories and I am glad I did. It is a heartbreaking, powerful collection of fiction based on the author’s own non-fictional experiences in the Vietnam War. For me, several of these stories are standouts, and by “standouts,” I mean that they will haunt me.
The Man I Killed is a stunning portrayal of what a soldier feels when he kills the enemy, who turns out to be little more than a young man with the promise of the rest of his life ripped away like the star-shaped hole where one eye used to be. O’Brien’s meticulous and controlled use of repetition evokes a powerful picture of the immobility of shock.
Speaking of Courage and the following Notes speaks to how the moments in Vietnam cross the ocean with Norman Bowkar and won’t let him go. Just as he loops around the lake in his truck, so his life loops around his memories of the war and one incident in particular.
In the Field is about as real as it gets in terms of the relentless rain, the mud and muck of a river that has overflowed its banks, and the search for one of their own in the muddy, shitty river in the dark of the night where the enemy is never far away.
Don’t let the grittiness of the subject matter dissuade you from picking up this book of phenomenally written short stories. Try reading just one, perhaps The Things They Carried, and see what you think. I don’t think you will be sorry.