O'Brien, Tim 1946–
O'Brien, Tim 1946–
(William Timothy O'Brien)
PERSONAL: Born October 1, 1946, in Austin, MN; son of William T. (an insurance salesman) and Ava E. (a teacher; maiden name, Schultz) O'Brien; married, 1973; wife's name Ann (a magazine production manager). Education: Macalester College, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1968; graduate study at Harvard University.
ADDRESSES: Home—Boxford, MA. Agent—Lynn Nesbit, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Novelist. Washington Post, Washington, DC, national affairs reporter, 1973–74; Breadloaf Writer's Conference, Ripton, VT, teacher. Military service: U.S. Army, 1968–70, served in Vietnam; became sergeant; received Purple Heart.
MEMBER: Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: O. Henry Memorial Awards, 1976 and 1978, for chapters of Going after Cacciato; National Book Award, 1979, for Going after Cacciato; Vietnam Veterans of America award, 1987; Heartland Prize, Chicago Tribune, 1990, for The Things They Carried; has also received awards from National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation, and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference; New York Times Notable Book designation, American Library Association Notable Book designation, and James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction, all 1995, all for In the Lake of the Woods.
If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me up and Ship Me Home (anecdotes), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1973.
Northern Lights (novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1975.
Going after Cacciato (novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1978.
The Nuclear Age, Press-22, 1981, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1990.
In the Lake of the Woods, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Western Pub. Co. (Racine, WI), 1994.
Tomcat in Love, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 1998.
July, July, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Contributor to magazines, including Playboy, Esquire, and Redbook.
ADAPTATIONS: July, July was adapted as an audiobook, Houghton Mifflin Audio, 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: Award-winning author Tim O'Brien is perhaps best known for his fictional, yet gripping, portrayals of the Vietnam conflict, especially of its people. Based on his own combat exposure, O'Brien delves into the American psyche and the human experience as he writes not only of what actually happened, but also the emotional and psychological impact of the war. In highly praised novels such as The Things They Carried, Going after Cacciato, and In the Lake of the Woods, he explores the war and its aftershocks from many vantage points, some intimate and some more distant. "But to label O'Brien a Vietnam author seems limiting, even simplistic," Library Journal contributor Mirela Roncevic maintained, "for his work has incessantly challenged his storytelling skills, demonstrating his ability to write both lucidly and succinctly while exploring the arcane relationship between fact and fiction, reality and imagination."
Drafted immediately following his graduation from Macalester College in 1968, O'Brien served two years with the U.S. infantry. In a Publishers Weekly interview with Michael Coffey, O'Brien explained his motivation in writing about the war as his need to write with "passion," and commented that to write "good" stories "requires a sense of passion, and my passion as a human being and as a writer intersect in Vietnam, not in the physical stuff but in the issues of Vietnam—of courage, rectitude, enlightenment, holiness, trying to do the right thing in the world."
"Writing fiction is a solitary endeavor," explained O'Brien in an essay quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series. He elaborated: "You shape your own universe. You practice all the time, then practice some more. You pay attention to craft. You aim for tension and suspense, a sense of drama, displaying in concrete terms the actions and reactions of human beings contesting problems of the heart. You try to make art. You strive for wholeness, seeking continuity and flow, each element performing both as cause and effect, always hoping to create, or to recreate, the great illusions of life."
"It's kind of a semantic game: lying versus truth-telling," described O'Brien, discussing his attitude towards writing in an interview with Ronald Baughman in Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series. "But I think it's an important game that writers and readers and anyone interested in art in general should be fully aware of. One doesn't lie for the sake of lying; one does not invent merely for the sake of inventing. One does it for a particular purpose and that purpose always is to arrive at some kind of spiritual truth that one can't discover simply by recording the world-as-it-is. We're inventing and using imagination for sublime reasons—to get at the essence of things, not merely the surface."
O'Brien's first novel, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me up and Ship Me Home, is an anecdotal account of an infantryman's year in Vietnam. A semi-fictionalized recounting of his own experiences, O'Brien's book tells the tale of a college educated young man who is drafted, trained for war, and shipped overseas to fight the Vietcong. He relates the story "with as much attention to his own feelings and states of mind as to the details of battle," declared a reviewer in Times Literary Supplement. An "interesting and highly readable book," remarked a critic in New Republic. Joseph McLellan, writing in Washington Post Book World, called If I Die in a Combat Zone "powerfully written," and New York Times Book Review contributor Annie Gottlieb ended her review with similar praise: "O'Brien writes—without either pomposity or embarrassment—with the care and eloquence of someone for whom communication is still a vital and serious possibility, not a narcissistic vestige. It is a beautiful, painful book, arousing pity and fear for the daily realities of modern disaster."
Northern Lights, O'Brien's next book, creates a progression in the Vietnam tale: the story of the Vietnam soldier coming home to his family. Harvey Perry is the "hero," the soldier who fought for his country, lost an eye in battle, and seems to be all that his father wanted. Paul Perry, on the other hand, is the stay-at-home brother, the "failure" of the family who is married and employed as a farm agent in the family's hometown of Sawmill Landing, Minnesota. Northern Lights is about the two brothers' relationship, and the changes that occur during a long and difficult cross-country ski trip. Paul emerges as the real hero after Harvey, upset over the abrupt end of a romance and physically ill, proves to be less adept at survival than his cunning brother. It is Paul who rescues Harvey, much to the surprise of everyone, including himself.
Northern Lights received mixed reviews, with several critics commenting on O'Brien's style. Duncan Fallow-ell, writing in Spectator, called Northern Lights "indigestible, as if [the author] is having a crack at raising the great American novel fifty years after it sank." Alas-dair Maclean, writing in Times Literary Supplement, expressed a similar view, claiming "O'Brien's ambition outreaches his gifts." New York Times Book Review contributor John Deck, however, concluded that O'Brien "tells the story modestly and neatly … [in] a crafted work of serious intent with themes at least as old as the Old Testament—they still work."
O'Brien takes a new approach to his Vietnam theme in Going after Cacciato, winner of the National Book Award in 1979. The chapters read like short stories; several were published seperately before the book's compilation, with two tales winning O. Henry awards. Cacciato records the dream journey of Paul Berlin, a U.S. infantryman in Vietnam, and alternates this with the "dreamlike" actualities of war. The story begins in reality when a fellow platoon member, Cacciato—which means "the pursued" in Italian—decides to leave South East Asia and walk to Paris. He never makes it, being found near the Laotian border by a search party that includes Berlin. Berlin later wonders during guard duty one night, what if Cacciato was never found and the group had to track him all the way to Paris? Here Berlin's imagination roams free as fantasies of travel, beautiful women, and, ultimately, Paris, alternate with memories of battle, death, and war. "The fantasy journey is an unworkable idea that nearly sinks the book," claimed a reviewer in Newsweek. And Mary Hope, writing in Spectator, labeled Going after Cacciato a "strained effort." Other critics issued more positive reviews, praising the writing style and the author's abilities. "O'Brien's writing is crisp, authentic and grimly ironic," declared Richard Freedman in New York Times Book Review. Washington Post Book World contributor Robert Wilson also commented on the dream elements, calling them "out of place, hard to reconcile with the evocative realism of the rest of the narrative," but closed by writing that "O'Brien knows the soldier as well as anybody, and is able to make us know him in the unique way that the best fiction can."
In The Nuclear Age, O'Brien shifts his focus to a civilian's perspective. William Cowling, a Vietnam era antiwar radical, terrorist, and draft dodger, is the protagonist who traded in his radicalism for profits in uranium speculation in the 1990s. A product of the "nuclear age," his childhood fear of nuclear annihilation, a concern rampant during the 1950s, has turned into paranoia in his adulthood. The story opens in 1995, with Cowling digging a bomb shelter in his backyard, but most of the story is told through flashbacks illustrating his childhood and radical young adult years. Eventually, Cowling must accept that the bombs exist and learn to ignore them, ultimately choosing the love of his family over his paranoia. "O'Brien never makes William's hysteria real or convincing," judged Michiko Kakutani in New York Times. Richard Lipez, writing in Washington Post Book World, called The Nuclear Age an "imperfect but very lively novel," an opinion shared by several other reviewers. Lipez praised the "marvelous character" of Cowling, but noted that the impact of O'Brien's "main message" about the craziness of the nuclear age gets lost in the radical actions of another era. Times Literary Supplement contributor David Montrose also noted several flaws in the novel, including the characterization of Cowling's friends, but wrote in his conclusion: The Nuclear Age "is notable for the lean clarity of O'Brien's prose and the finesse with which, as ever, he evokes states of mind."
O'Brien returns to the subject of Vietnam and the soldier's viewpoint with The Things They Carried, a fictional memoir filled with interconnected stories about the conflict and the people involved. The volume is narrated by a character named "Tim O'Brien," whom the author states is not himself, although there are many similarities. One tale records the visit an All-American girl made to her boyfriend in South East Asia, where she eventually becomes so caught up in the war that she wanders off into combat wearing a necklace of human tongues. Another relates the death of a friend whose misstep while playing catch with hand grenades causes him to be blown up by a land mine. The title, The Things They Carried, refers to the things a soldier takes into combat with him: not necessarily all physical items, like weapons, but also intangibles such as fear, exhaustion, and memories. Many reviewers praised O'Brien's work, with New York Times Book Review contributor Robert R. Harris proclaiming it "a stunning performance. The overall effect of these original tales is devastating." "O'Brien convinces us that such incredible stories are faithful to the reality of Vietnam," declared Julian Loose in Times Literary Supplement. Kakutani praised O'Brien's prose, describing it as a style "that combines the sharp, unsentimental rhythms of Hemingway with gentler, more lyrical descriptions … [giving] the reader a shockingly visceral sense of what it felt like to tramp through a booby-trapped jungle," and concluded, "With The Things They Carried, Mr. O'Brien has written a vital, important book—a book that matters not only to the reader interested in Vietnam, but to anyone interested in the craft of writing as well."
July, July focuses on a group of Darton Hall College students who return to their alma mater for their thirtieth class reunion in July of 1999. In what a Publishers Weekly contributor described as "more a group of interwoven short stories or character studies than a traditional novel," O'Brien reveals the disillusionment of a group of middle-agers who look back on their radical, idealistic, free-wheeling, and politically active youth and feel disillusioned with the course of their lives. Describing the characters of July, July as "divorced, drunk," and "drifting," New Statesman contributor James Hopkin explained that their "reunion reveals old flames, old wounds, and new crises," and noted that O'Brien "shows us how their disenchantment has turned to apathy and political lassitude," a lassitude the author extends to "the nation's body politic." While noting that the novel moves O'Brien away from his characteristic focus on Vietnam, in this tale of disillusioned baby boomers the Vietnam war "hovers in the background like some unfinished business from the past, testing the powers of memory," noted Mirela Roncevic in Library Journal.
While the Publishers Weekly contributor called July, July a "comic tale" in which "sympathy, camaraderie, solidarity and love run deeply throughout," other critics disagreed. John Mort, in a Booklist review, maintained that O'Brien's characters, while engaging in "witty" conversation, are fifty-something narcissists lacking a "social conscience," "seem shallow," and "their youthful contempt for any sort of spirituality has not aged well." Hopkin, praising the author's style as "breathless, bitter and designed to give you the jitters," noted that at the novel's core is a "sense of a Middle America gone ideologically idle and paranoid." In contrast, a Kirkus Reviews contributor found the novel to be sensitive to its character's strengths and human weaknesses, noting that, "though its parts are of unequal interest and excellence, July, July powerfully dramatizes the long, lingering aftermath of what had seemed to those who grew up during it, a veritable year of wonders." For O'Brien's part, he told Atlantic Unbound interviewer Josh Karp that the novel represents the sense of unmet expectations that every adult of a certain age must deal with. "I think every generation knows betrayal and loss," the author noted. "No generation is exempt from that. When I wrote the book, I wasn't thinking of Baby Boomers. I was thinking about human beings … and to me they could have been part of any generation. I mean, my father's generation—granted they won World War II—but they thought the world would be changed forever, and it wasn't. They know what disappointment and loss is. So, I really thought of it as a more ubiquitous theme that everybody could identify with."
"What can you teach people, just for having been in a war?," O'Brien pondered in response to a question by Larry McCaffery in a Chicago Review interview. "By 'teach,' I mean provide insight, philosophy. The mere fact of having witnessed violence and death doesn't make a person a teacher. Insight and wisdom are required, and that means reading and hard thought. I didn't intend If I Die to stand as a profound statement, and it's not. Teaching is one thing, and telling stories is another. Instead I wanted to use stories to alert readers to the complexity and ambiguity of a set of moral issues—but without preaching a moral lesson."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1977, Volume 19, 1981, Volume 40, 1986.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Volume 9, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Herzog, T. C., Tim O'Brien, Prentice Hall (London, England), 1997.
Kaplan, Steven, Understanding Tim O'Brien, University of South Carolina, 1995.
America, September 1, 1973; November 17, 1973.
Antioch Review, spring, 1978.
Atlantic, May, 1973; November, 1994, p. 146.
Book, September-October, 2002, Stephanie Foote, review of July, July, p. 76.
Booklist, September 1, 2002, John Mort, review of July, July, p. 7.
Books and Bookmen, December, 1973.
Chicago Review, number 2, 1982, pp. 129-49.
Chicago Tribune, April 27, 1990; August 23, 1990.
Chicago Tribune Book World, October 6, 1985, p. 39.
Christian Century, May 24, 1995, p. 567.
Christian Science Monitor, March 9, 1978.
College Literature, spring, 2002, Marilyn Wesley, "Truth and Fiction in Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried," pp. 1-18.
Commonweal, December 5, 1975.
Critique, fall, 1999, Jack Slay Jr., "A Rumor of War," p. 79.
English Journal, January, 1994, p. 82.
Explicator, spring, 2003, Robin Blyn, review of The Things They Carried, pp. 109-91.
Guardian, October 20, 1973.
Harper's, March, 1978; August, 1999, Vince Passaro, review of The Things They Carried, p. 80.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2002, review of July, July, p. 985.
Library Journal, December 18, 1977; September 1, 1998, Marc A. Kloszewski, review of Tomcat in Love, p. 216; May 15, 2001, Nancy Pearl, review of In the Lake of the Woods, p. 192; July, 2002, Mirela Roncevic, review of July, July, pp. 122-23.
Listener, April 1, 1976.
Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1979; March 11, 1990.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 3, 1985, p. 16; April 1, 1990, p. 3.
Massachusetts Review, winter, 2002, Pamela Smiley, "The Role of the Ideal (Female) Reader in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: Why Should Real Women Play?," pp. 602-13.
Nation, January 29, 1977; March 25, 1978.
New Republic, May 12, 1973, p. 30; February 7, 1976.
New Statesman, January 4, 1974; May 10, 1999, Phil Whitaker, review of Tomcat in Love, p. 45; November 11, 2002, James Hopkin, review of July, July, p. 40.
Newsweek, February 20, 1978; April 2, 1990, p. 56; October 24, 1994, p. 77.
New Yorker, July 16, 1973; March 27, 1978; October 24, 1994, p. 111.
New York Review of Books, November 13, 1975.
New York Times, February 12, 1978; March 19, 1979; April 24, 1979; September 28, 1985; April 4, 1987; August 4, 1987; March 6, 1990; April 3, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, July 1, 1973, pp. 10, 12; December 2, 1973; October 12, 1975, p. 42; February 12, 1978, pp. 1, 22; November 3, 1985, p. 16; November 17, 1985, p. 7; August 16, 1987, p. 28; March 11, 1990, p. 8; October 9, 1994, pp. 1, 33.
Progressive, December, 1994, p. 40.
Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1985, p. 65; December 1989, p. 35; January 26, 1990, p. 404; February 1990, pp. 60-61; July 11, 1994, p. 61; July 13, 1998, review of Tomcat in Love, p. 61; January 6, 2003, review of July, July, p. 20.
Saturday Review, February 18, 1978; May 13, 1978. Spectator, April 3, 1976, p. 22; November 25, 1978, p. 23.
Time, October 24, 1994, p. 74.
Times Literary Supplement, October 19, 1973, p. 1269; April 23, 1976, p. 498; March 28, 1986, p. 342; June 29, 1990, p. 708.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 11, 1990, p. 5.
Twentieth-Century Literature, spring, 2000, John H. Timmerman, "Tim O'Brien and the Art of the True War Story," p. 100.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1978; winter, 2003, review of July, July, p. 23.
Washington Post, July 31, 1987; April 23, 1990.
Washington Post Book World, May 27, 1973; June 3, 1973, p. 14; June 30, 1974, p. 4; February 19, 1978, p. E4; October 13, 1985, p. 9; April 7, 1991, p. 12.
Whole Earth Review, fall, 1995, p. 58.
Atlantic Unbound, http://www.theatlantic.com/ (October 30, 2002), Josh Karp, interview with O'Brien.
Tim O'Brien Home Page, http://www.illyria.com/tobhp/ (April 7, 2004).