The Early Years
The author Tim O'Brien is not unlike the character called "Tim" that he created for his novel, The Things They Carried, as both author and character carry the stories of similarly experienced lives. O'Brien not only shares the same name as his protagonist but also a similar biographical background. Readers should note and remember that although the actual and fictional O'Briens have some experiences in common, The Things They Carried is a work of fiction and not a non-fiction autobiography. This distinction is key and central to understanding the novel.
Like "O'Brien," Tim O'Brien, born William Timothy O'Brien, Jr., spent his early life first in Austin, Minnesota, and later in Worthington, Minnesota, a small, insulated community near the borders of Iowa and South Dakota. The first of three children, O'Brien was born on October 1, 1946, at the beginning of the post-World War II baby boom era.His childhood was an American childhood. O'Brien's hometown is small-town, Midwestern America, a town that once billed itself as "the turkey capital of the world," exactly the sort of odd and telling detail that appears in O'Brien's work. Worthington had a large influence on O'Brien's imagination and early development as an author: O'Brien describes himself as an avid reader when he was a child. And like his other main childhood interest, magic tricks, books were a form of bending reality and escaping it. O'Brien's parents were reading enthusiasts, his father on the local library board and his mother a second grade teacher.
O'Brien's childhood is much like that of his characters — marked by an all-American kid-ness, summers spent on little league baseball teams and, later, on jobs and meeting girls. Eventually, the national quiescence and contentment of the 1950s gave way to the political awareness and turbulence of the 1960s, and as the all-American baby boom generation reached the end of adolescence, they faced the reality of military engagement in Vietnam and a growing divisiveness over war at home.
Education and Vietnam
O'Brien was drafted for military service in 1968, two weeks after completing his undergraduate degree at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he had enrolled in 1964. He earned a bachelor's degree in government and politics. An excellent student, O'Brien looked forward to attending graduate school and studying political science. During the course of his college career, O'Brien came to oppose the war, not as a radical activist but as a campaign supporter and volunteer of Eugene McCarthy, a candidate in the 1968 presidential election who was openly against the Vietnam War.
In 1968, the war in Vietnam reached its bloodiest point in terms of American casualties, and the government relied on conscription to recruit more soldiers. Further, graduate school deferments, which exempted students from the draft, were beginning to be discontinued, though O'Brien did not seek out this recourse. Disappointed and worried, O'Brien — like his character "Tim O'Brien" — spent the summer after his graduation working in a meatpacking plant. Unlike his character, however, O'Brien passed his nights pouring out his anxiety and grief onto the typewritten page. He believes it was this experience that sowed the seeds for his later writing career: "I went to my room in the basement and started pounding the typewriter. I did it all summer. My conscience kept telling me not to go, but my whole upbringing told me I had to."
O'Brien hated the war and thought it was wrong, and he often thought about fleeing to Canada. Unlike his fictional alter ego, however, he did not attempt it. Instead, O'Brien yielded to what he has described as a pressure from his community to let go of his convictions against the war and to participate — not only because he had to but also because it was his patriotic duty, a sentiment that he had learned from his community and parents who met in the Navy during World War II. "It's not Worthington I object to, it's the kind of place it is," O'Brien told an interviewer. "The not knowing anything and not tolerating any dissent, that's what gets to me. These people sent me to Vietnam, and they didn't know the first thing about it."
O'Brien ultimately answered the call of the draft on August 14, 1968 and was sent to Army basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington. He was later assigned to advanced individual training and soon found himself in Vietnam, assigned to Firebase LZ Gator, south of Chu Lai. (The appendix of this book includes a map of Vietnam, including areas referred to in the novel.) O'Brien served a 13-month tour in-country from 1969 to 1970 with Alpha Company, the Fifth Battalion of the 46th Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division. He was a regular foot soldier, or, as commonly referred to in veterans' slang, a "grunt," serving in such roles as rifleman and radio telephone operator (RTO). He was wounded twice while in service and was relatively safe during the final months of his tour when he was assigned to jobs in the rear. O'Brien ultimately rose to the rank of sergeant.
After returning from his tour in March 1970, O'Brien resumed his schooling and began graduate work in government and political science at Harvard University, where he stayed for nearly five years but did not complete a dissertation.
In May 1974, O'Brien went to work briefly for The Washington Post as a national affairs reporter before his attention was fully diverted to the craft of fiction writing. He began and continues to publish regularly in various periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Esquire, and Playboy, frequently excerpting parts of his novels as autonomous short stories.
Of particular note is a piece O'Brien wrote for The New York Times Magazine about returning to Vietnam — his first trip back since his service there. In "The Vietnam in Me," O'Brien probes the intersection between memory, time, and witnessing the Vietnam War and his personal relationships. Usually guarded and self-conscious as a public subject — for example, it is rare to find a photo of O'Brien without his signature baseball cap — his article was intimate and highly personal. O'Brien made the trip back to Vietnam with a woman for whom he left his wife, and he makes this plain in the article. O'Brien also addresses other sensitive and personal subjects such as his own readjustment after serving in Vietnam: "Last night," he wrote, "suicide was on my mind. Not whether, but how."
Despite his personal difficulties and despite his intention to cease writing after completing In the Lake of the Woods (1994), O'Brien continues to produce works that illuminate the human response to war and articulate the strain associated with veterans (like O'Brien himself) reconciling what they saw and did during the Vietnam War with the values and mores they had learned prior to Vietnam.
O'Brien maintains that The Things They Carried "is meant to be about man's yearning for peace. At least [he] hopes it is taken that way." For O'Brien, through his own writing career and through the veteran characters he has conceived, this "yearning" is partially satisfied through the act of storytelling, getting at the truth of an idea or event by retelling and embellishing it. In this way, The Things They Carried is a culmination of O'Brien's earlier works and is a culmination of themes — courage, duty, memory, guilt, and storytelling — present in all his works.
O'Brien's first published work was a war memoir and account of his year as a "grunt" in Vietnam, If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973). This book begins probing the themes that dominate most of O'Brien's works, particularly the issue of moral courage. He followed up his autobiographical account with a debut novel entitled Northern Lights (1975), which posits two brothers against one another as foils — one brother went to Vietnam and the other did not. The crux of the novel, which is set in O'Brien's native Minnesota, is a cruel blizzard against which both brothers must struggle. Through this experience, the brothers learn more about each other, and their own motivations and values are illuminated in their own minds. This early work signals the reflection, self-reference, and thorough interior probing of characters that will become the hallmark of O'Brien's style.
O'Brien's next novel departs from the more traditional form of Northern Lights. Going After Cacciato (1978) is a more surreal and fantastical novel that brought O'Brien to wider public acclaim and earned him the 1979 National Book Award in fiction. A sort of dark, ironic comedy, the subject, an Army private, Cacciato, who catalyzes the story's action, deserts his unit in Vietnam and heads for the Paris peace talks. Literally walking away from the war, the other members of his unit are ordered to pursue him. The story is told from the point of view of Paul Berlin, the character that most resembles O'Brien, as they follow Cacciato across the world. O'Brien begins to push the limits of truth and believability in this novel as well as the bounds of temporality, both stylistic choices that reappear in The Things They Carried.
Nuclear Age (1985) was O'Brien's third novel and the farthest departure from his own experience. Set in 1995, O'Brien's protagonist, William Cowling, is a middle-aged man who grew up under the atomic umbrella, so to speak. He suffers severe paranoia over the possibility of nuclear war and finds solace in digging a hole in his backyard as an attempt to bury and quiet all the thoughts that antagonize him. Again, in this novel, O'Brien demonstrates his adeptness in creating a comic look at serious subjects, this being the real fear and threat of the Bomb.
After a two-year interim, O'Brien's short story, "The Things They Carried," the first vignette in the later novel of the same name, was first published in Esquire, and it received the 1987 National Magazine Award in Fiction. The short story was also selected for the 1987 Best American Short Stories volume and for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories of the 1980s. Additionally, O'Brien's short stories have been anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories (1976, 1978, 1982), Great Esquire Fiction, Best American Short Stories, (1977, 1987), The Pushcart Prize (Volumes II and X), and in many textbooks and Vietnam-related collections.
O'Brien published The Things They Carried in 1990, returning to the immediate setting of Vietnam during the war, which is present in his other novels. O'Brien's return to the rich raw materials of his own experience proved fruitful, as The Things They Carried won the 1990 Chicago Tribune Heartland Award in fiction. The novel was selected by The New York Times as one of the year's ten best novels and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1991, O'Brien was awarded the Melcher Award for The Things They Carried and won France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in 1992.
The follow-up novel, In the Lake of the Woods, published in 1994, again takes up the major themes seen in O'Brien's work: guilt, complicity, culpability, and moral courage. O'Brien invents protagonist John Wade, a Vietnam veteran who aspires to win a senatorial election. He loses by a landslide, however, as charges about his complicity in the My Lai massacre come to light during his campaign. To recover from the defeat, John and his wife Kathy stay at a cabin on the shores of a Minnesota lake. O'Brien couches the novel in the style of magical realism and adds an element of mystery as Kathy disappears, and blame for her disappearance (and possible death) fall on her husband. John is forced to confront the deep denial he harbors about his participation in the war as O'Brien raises larger questions about the fallout of war and the consequences of wars after the fighting has ceased and the participants return home changed. In the Lake of the Woods won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians and was selected as the best novel of 1994 by Time magazine.
In his most recent novel, Tomcat in Love, O'Brien creates a Vietnam veteran protagonist, Tom Chippering, though the subject of O'Brien's novel is not war, but love. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Tomcat in Love is a comic novel about a sexist, politically incorrect hero, one that readers love to hate. O'Brien explains that [his] "real fans will love the book. There are so-called fans who are basically Vietnam junkies, but the people who appreciate the writing will like this. I think this is my best book."
O'Brien has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation. Adept at sly comic fiction about mundane or serious topics, O'Brien is a master of creative storytelling, a manipulator of literary form, and one of the most challenging authors of his time in terms of how he intermixes form and content.