Singer-songwriter Tim O’Brien draws from many influences to create a unique blend of traditional bluegrass, honky tonk, folk, and swing. He helped to form the award-winning bluegrass band Hot Rize in 1978, a group he performed with until it disbanded in 1990. He has released several solo albums, worked as a backing musician for other artists, formed his own record label, and performed and recorded with his sister, musician Mollie O’Brien.
Born on March 16, 1954, in Wheeling, West Virginia, O’Brien grew up hearing famed country artists, including Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Country Gentlemen, and Jimmy Martin perform on radio’s WWVA Jamboree. As he told an interviewer from the Puremusic website, when he was 13 years old, his parents would drop him off at the Jamboree. “I’d pay $2.50 to get into the cheap balcony seats. But then, on special Saturday nights you might see Buck Owens, Charley Pride, Jerry Reed, or Merle Haggard.”
O’Brien also listened to the Beatles; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Roger Miller. When he was a teenager the self-taught musician traveled to Colorado and joined bluegrass guitarist Charles Sawtelle, banjo player Pete Wernick, and bass player/singer mike Scap (who was soon replaced by Nick Forster) to create the band Hot Rize (named after the secret ingredient in Martha White Self-Rising Flour). According to John Metzger at The Music Box website, the band “not only inspired artists within its own genre, but also fueled the rise of the jam band scene in Colorado.”
From 1978-90, Hot Rize played bluegrass based on traditional sounds but enlivened with fresh harmonies; they also often combined old and new songs in their show. In 1990 Hot Rize won the International Blue-grass Music Association’s first Entertainer of the Year award, and in 1993 O’Brien won the International Blue-grass Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year award.
In 1984 O’Brien produced his first solo album, Hard Year Blues, which featured his distinctive folk-fusion sound. By 1994 O’Brien and his sister had produced three more albums that included traditional country, folk, and swing tunes sung with tight harmonies. In 1997 country singer Kathy Mattea covered O’Brien’s “Untold Stories” and “Walk the Way the Wind Blows,” which became a hit single. Both songs had a wide appeal, reaching beyond the country audience to the mainstream.
After Hot Rize broke up, O’Brien founded the O’Boys, a band that included jazz and bluegrass guitarist Scott Nygaard, bassist Mark Schatz. O’Brien played a range of instruments—mandolin, fiddle, and even the bouzouki. The group toured widely, recording Oh, Boy! O’Boy! in 1993. The album featured a wide range of material, from Jimmy Driftwood’s traditional “He Had a
Born on March 16, 1954, in Wheeling, WV. Education: Attended Colby College, Waterville, ME.
Began playing guitar at the age of 12; learned to play the mandolin at Colby College; traveled to Colorado, where he began playing in bluegrass bands; played with Hot Rize, which included Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle, and Nick Foster, for 12 years; also performed with his band, the O’Boys, and his sister, Mollie O’Brien; has worked as backup for other musicians and as a solo artist.
Awards: International Bluegrass Music Association, Entertainer of the Year (with Hot Rize), 1990; International Bluegrass Music Association, Male Vocalist of the Year, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 55300, Durham NC 27717-5300, phone: (919) 489-4349, fax: (919) 489-6080, website: http://www.sugarhillrecords.com. Management —Brad Hunt/Sue Stillwagon, The WNS Group, 6 Rolyn Hills Dr., Orangeburg, NY 10962, phone: (845) 358-3003, fax:(845) 358-7277. Website — Tim O’Brien Official Website: http://www.timobrien.net.
Long Chain On,” to the “newgrass” sound of “Church Steeple.” It also included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a track that inspired O’Brien to record an entire album of Dylan songs, Red on Blonde.
Hot Rize reunited in 1996 for a reunion tour, captured in So Long of a Journey, which was not released until 2002. Metzger wrote that the album “showcases the ensemble at its best—delivering a delightful treat,” and that the band “unleashed some of the tightest, most exquisite bluegrass music this side of [famed bluegrass musician] Del McCoury.”
In 1997 O’Brien released another solo album, When No One’s Around, whose title track was later recorded by Garth Brooks on his Sevens album. O’Brien moved into another musical tradition in 1999 with The Crossing, an exploration of Irish music that included performances by Irish band Altan and Irish singer Paul Brady, as well as many American bluegrass performers. In a review in World of Hibernia, Kira L. Schlechter noted that the album had been inspired by O’Brien’s interest in his Irish roots, remarking, “That interest is more like an overwhelming delight.” On the album, O’Brien sang about Irish emigrants to America, prompting Schlecter to comment, “O’Brien acts as a loving historian and proud Irish-American….” In Sing Out!, Mike Regenstreif called the album “a masterful exploration in song… of Irish emigration to America” and “a wonderful demonstration of how Irish music developed in the New World.”
In his interview with Puremusic, O’Brien said honestly that the project originally came about because it was “an excuse for me to play some Irish music with people that really knew how to do it. I’d sort of hide behind them when they were playing a tune.” He noted, however, that bluegrass has Celtic roots, and that many bluegrass tunes are actually Irish or Scottish ones that were brought over with immigrants; O’Brien wanted to explore both the similarities and the differences in the music.
In a follow-up album, Two Journeys, O’Brien emphasized the Irish side of this musical marriage, and again invited many Irish artists to participate. Regenstreif wrote, “O’Brien continues to explore the relationship between Irish and American music as he leads a kind of culture exchange between some of Ireland’s best traditional musicians and some of America’s,” noting that “the spirit of tradition and innovation permeates every song” on the album.
O’Brien established his own record label, Howdy Skies, when he decided to record a musical companion to the book Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. The novel, about a Civil War soldier making the long trek home after the war, was a huge success, but O’Brien was unable to muster any interest in the project with any of the record companies with whom he had previously worked. So he went ahead with his friends Dirk Powell and John Herrmann to make the recording Songs from the Mountain.
O’Brien’s talent has contributed to albums by a wide range of other artists, including Laurie Lewis, Maura O’Connell, Kathy Kallick, Jerry Douglas, Peter Ostroushko, Dwight Yoakam, Pat Alger, and Robert Earl Keen, as well as Kate Rusbe and David Grier. On his website O’Brien said of his artistic method, “It’s like chiseling away a sculpture. It was always there. You’ve just got to find what it is that’s you.”
In the Puremusic interview, O’Brien said of his prolific amount of musical work, “That’s just how it is in the bluegrass world, you gotta do one every year. There are only so many fans of this music, and the only way to keep selling records is to keep making them.” And, he noted, “I certainly don’t suffer from a shortage of ideas. I draw from a lot of different sources…. There’s so much good traditional material. It’s just about getting the vibe going with a group of musicians.”
Odd Man In, Sugar Hill, 1991.
Oh Boy, O’Boy, Sugar Hill, 1993.
Rock in My Shoe, Sugar Hill, 1995.
Red on Blonde, Sugar Hill, 1996.
Songs from the Mountain, Howdy Skies, 1998.
The Crossing, Howdy Skies, 1999.
Real Time, Howdy Skies, 2000.
Two Journeys, Howdy Skies, 2001.
With Hot Rize
Untold Stories, Sugar Hill, 1987.
Take It Home, Sugar Hill, 1990.
Traditional Ties, Sugar Hill, 1998.
So Long of a Journey, Howdy Skies, 2002.
With Mollie O’Brien
Take Me Back, Sugar Hill, 1988.
Remember Me, Sugar Hill, 1992.
Away out on the Mountain, Sugar Hill, 1994.
Sing Out!, Spring 2002.
World of Hibemia, Fall 1999.
“Hot Rize: So Long of a Journey,” The Music Box, http://www.musicbox-online.com/hr-long-html (July 9, 2002).
“Interview with Tim O’Brien,” Puremusic.com, http://www.puremusic.com/obrien2.htm (July 9, 2002).
Tim O’Brien Official Website, http://www.timobrien.net (July 9, 2002).
Excerpt from his story "On the Rainy River"
Published in The Things They Carried, 1990
"I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile. I was afraid of walking away from my own life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything that mattered to me."
As American involvement in Vietnam deepened, the United States used a military draft system known as the Selective Service to meet its troop needs. But the draft soon became one of the most controversial aspects of the entire war. The antiwar movement condemned it as a terrible system that forced America's sons to fight an immoral war. Some supporters of the war disliked its rules as well. In fact, they joined antiwar activists in charging that draft rules favored young men from middle-class and wealthy families and forced America's poor and workingclass families to shoulder most of the burden of the war. As criticism of the draft intensified and opposition to the war increased, millions of young draftees resorted to a variety of strategies to avoid military service in Vietnam. Millions of others decided to obey their draft notices. Either way, reaching a decision on this all-important issue was not easy for most men. Many draftees agonized over whether to accept induction (membership in the armed forces), torn by their conflicted feelings about the war and their responsibilities to family and country.
Originally created in 1948, the Selective Service was a federal agency that had the power to draft male citizens and residents between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six to serve in the U.S. armed forces. This pool of potential draftees was continually replenished over time, because every American male was required to register for the draft when he turned eighteen. During peacetime, the draft was not used very frequently. The armed services were able to meet their troop needs with volunteers. When the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam deepened in the mid-1960s, though, President Lyndon Johnson turned to the draft to meet the increased demand for soldiers.
The foundation of the Selective Service was a national network of draft boards. The boards were made up of volunteer citizens—usually white, financially secure, middle-aged men who were generally supportive of the war. These board members were responsible for reviewing the records of young draftees who lived in the area and deciding whether to approve or deny applications for draft "deferments" or "exemptions." Draftees who were given deferments were allowed to postpone entering the military service, while draftees who received exemptions were permanently excused from military duty. All other draftees—those who either did not request special status or had their requests turned down by the board—entered the military, provided they passed their medical exams.
The Selective Service process was very simple. Once a month, every draft board in the United States received instructions from the federal government to select a set number of draftees for conscription (enlistment) in the armed services. The boards then contacted eligible draftees to arrange medical exams. Those who failed were classified "4-F," which means ineligible for military service. Those who passed (and were not granted deferments or exemptions) usually were assigned to the U.S. Army. The Army was the largest branch of the military, and the other branches of the armed forces usually received enough volunteers to meet their needs.
At first glance, only a small percentage of American men appeared to be directly impacted by the draft. After all, of the approximately 26.8 million American men who became eligible for the draft during the war, only 2.2 million were actually inducted into the Selective Service. But the threat of the draft changed the lives of millions of other young men, and it became one of the most widely criticized aspects of the entire war.
Avoiding military induction
During the course of the war, millions of young American males became "draft dodgers" in order to avoid serving in Vietnam. Some evaded the draft because they feared for their lives. Others objected to military service because of a genuine belief that the war was immoral and unjust. And many men resisted the draft because they believed that the U.S. effort in Vietnam was doomed to fail. Most draftees who worked to avoid induction were probably motivated by a combination of all of these reasons.
Draftees used a variety of strategies to evade induction, many of which were legally allowed. In fact, approximately 16 million men—about 60 percent of the total number of draftable men who became eligible during the war—avoided military service by legal means. But men from middle-and upper-class families had much greater success in using these strategies than did young draftees from poor and working-class families. This fact gave rise to a slogan that became very well known during the war: "If you got the dough, you don't have to go."
Student deferments. The most popular strategy for evading the draft was to gain a student deferment. Under Selective Service rules of the mid-1960s, full-time college students were automatically excused from military service for as long as they remained in school. They could also preserve their draft immunity by going on to graduate school. Millions of young men took advantage of these rules to avoid induction into the armed forces. But this protection did not extend to part-time students, who often had to work their way through college because their families could not cover college expenses. Critics charged that this arrangement was blatantly unfair because it made young men from working-class or poor backgrounds much more vulnerable to the draft than their wealthier peers.
Medical exemptions. Another 3.5 million Americans were excused from the draft for medical reasons. This exemption also benefitted men from economically prosperous backgrounds more than draftees who came from poor and working-class communities. "One might expect men from disadvantaged backgrounds, with poorer nutrition and less access to decent health care, to receive most of these exemptions," wrote Christian Appy in Working-Class War. "In practice, however, most physical exemptions were assigned to men who had the knowledge and resources to claim an exemption." These draftees used cooperative family doctors to secure medical excuses and thus avoid military service.
Men from poor and working-class backgrounds, on the other hand, generally took their medical exams at government-run military induction centers. Exemptions were much more difficult to obtain at these centers. "Even very minor disabilities were grounds for medical disqualification," noted Appy. "Skin rashes, flat feet, asthma, trick knees—such ailments were easily missed or ignored by military doctors, but they were legal exemptions that were frequently granted when attested to by a family physician."
Many draftees were excused from military service for valid medical reasons. But some otherwise healthy young men purposely mistreated their bodies in order to gain a medical exemption. Some took large quantities of drugs in hopes of flunking the medical exam. Others starved themselves or fattened themselves up in order to get outside the military's weight requirements. Finally, some draftees pretended that they were insane or homosexual in an effort to avoid induction. Generally, young men from good economic backgrounds were more likely to know about these strategies. In fact, antiwar organizations often held meetings on college campuses to inform potential draftees about their options.
Guard or reserve duty. Another popular option for young men who wanted to avoid going to Vietnam was to enlist in the National Guard or Army Reserves. These part-time volunteer military organizations, based in the United States, were regarded as a relatively safe form of military service during the war. Consequently, competition to gain admittance into these organizations was fierce. By 1968, for example, the National Guard had a waiting list of 100,000 men.
During the course of the war, both the Guard and the Reserves became notorious for unfair admission policies. The rosters of both groups became dominated by young men from wealthy or politically connected families who were able to make special arrangements for inclusion. Sons of poor and working-class families, meanwhile, often were left on the outside. Black men found it almost impossible to obtain a place in the Guard or Reserves.
Over one million Americans served in the National Guard and Army Reserves during the war. Occasionally, the safety of this type of military duty came into doubt. During the mid-1960s, for example, U.S. military leaders repeatedly asked President Lyndon Johnson to make greater use of these men in the war effort. But Johnson rejected these requests because of fears that America's middle-class and wealthy communities would turn against the war. President Richard Nixon adopted the same basic position when he assumed office in 1969. As a result, only 37,000 men from these organizations were mobilized (actively operated) during the conflict, and only 15,000 were sent to Vietnam.
Conscientious objectors. Another 170,000 Americans received "conscientious objector" (CO) deferments during the Vietnam War. Conscientious objectors are people who refuse to fight in the military because of their religious and moral beliefs. Some COs asked to be excused from all military duties. Others volunteered to serve as combat medics or in other capacities in which they would not be asked to kill.
Conscientious objectors were actively supported by many local church groups and antiwar groups, but CO applications remained light in the war's early years. CO applications became much more popular as the war progressed and as the legal definition of conscientious objection changed. Initially, CO exemptions were given only to those who opposed all wars because of their belief in a Supreme Being. But the Supreme Court changed the definition in 1967 so that men could make CO applications based on general religious and moral objections to war. In 1970 the Supreme Court further ruled that the basic requirement for a CO deferment was a conviction that participation in the military violated one's "religious or moral" beliefs.
Not all CO requests were approved. In fact, local draft boards turned down more than 300,000 applications for CO deferments during the war. But many young men whose CO applications were denied mounted legal challenges to board rulings. The challenges delayed their induction into the military. They also overwhelmed the Selective Service System and created a huge backlog of cases in many of the nation's courtrooms.
Leaving the country. Some young Americans who became eligible for the draft during the war left the country rather than submit to military service. The most popular destination for these draftees was Canada, America's neighbor to the north. U.S. officials estimate that 50,000-75,000 draftees fled to Canada during the war (the Canadian government puts the figure lower, at about 30,000). Another 20,000 men relocated to Sweden, Mexico, and other countries.
Although tens of thousands of young men relocated to Canada and elsewhere to avoid military service, this strategy was commonly seen as a last resort. It was usually chosen only after other possible "draft dodging" alternatives had been exhausted. After all, men who fled to Canada knew that they might never be able to return home to America to see their family and friends without risking arrest.
Draft resisters. Another popular strategy for avoiding military induction was outright defiance. Hundreds of thousands of young American men openly resisted the Selective Service System during the war. Some refused to register for the draft. Others burned their draft cards to protest the war. "Hell no, we won't go!" became a popular rallying cry within the antiwar movement.
Active resistance to the draft became particularly commonplace during the mid-and late 1960s, when the American public became divided about supporting the war. "The growth in public opposition to the war . . . enhanced draft resistance's appeal," confirmed Tom Wells in The War Within. "Resisters also maintained that noncooperation would increase protestors' credibility with the public. By challenging the government to send them to jail, resisters asserted, they were demonstrating that their opposition to the war sprang not from cowardice or youthful frivolity [silliness]—as supporters of the war often alleged—but from unyielding moral convictions."
David Harris, a draft resister who received a three-year jail sentence for his stance, agreed that active defiance of the Selective Service was a good way to show the American public that the antiwar movement was serious about its beliefs. "One of the first things that opponents of the antiwar movement pointed to was, 'Hey, look, our young men are over in Vietnam dying, and these guys are sitting around smoking dope.'" Harris told Wells. "I felt that in order for the antiwar movement to be effective speaking to that larger audience, it had to pay its own prices and make its own sacrifices and put itself in a position of vulnerability. Because I thought they were right, the critics were."
Between 1965 and 1975, approximately 200,000 Americans were formally accused of draft offenses. But most of these draftees never actually went to trial because the nation's court system was so heavily clogged with draft-related cases. Only 22,000 resisters were actually charged with draft law violations. Of these, 8,756 were convicted of crimes and 4,000 received prison sentences. The percentage of resisters who went to jail, then, was actually quite low. But Wells noted that their willingness to risk imprisonment had a noticeable impact on American society. "Resisters' personal courage increased the peace movement's credibility with some Americans," he wrote in The War Within. "Their sheer numbers nourished public questioning of the war as well. Perhaps most important, the Resistance inspired greater dedication and resolve among other antiwar activists."
Volunteering for service. Approximately 8.7 million men volunteered to join the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, four times the number of troops who were inducted through the Selective Service System. Many of these soldiers enlisted out of a genuine desire to answer America's military call to arms. But millions of the young men who voluntarily enlisted in the armed forces did so in an effort to exercise some control over their fate.
These volunteers recognized that they were exposing themselves to possible combat duty in Vietnam by enlisting. But many of them did so anyway for two major reasons. First, many enlistees came from poor and working-class communities, where knowledge of draft evasion strategies was weak and pressure to serve one's country was strong. Second, many enlistees believed that by volunteering for military service before being drafted, they were more likely to draw relatively safe assignments in Vietnam or at other U.S. bases around the world. Upon enlisting, however, many of these young soldiers still found themselves assigned to combat units in Vietnam.
In 1990 Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien published "On the Rainy River," a short story that gives a dramatic account of one young man's feelings after being drafted. The story was published in a short story collection called The Things They Carried, a classic work of Vietnam War literature.
Like the other stories in The Things They Carried, "On the Rainy River" is narrated by a character who has the same name as the author. In addition, many of the incidents and places that are described in the short story collection are based on O'Brien's own life. For example, the author actually received a draft notice shortly after graduating from Macalester College in Minnesota, just as the narrator does in "On the Rainy River." But even though many of the people, places, and events described in The Things They Carried closely mirror O'Brien's actual experiences in Vietnam, he describes the story collection as a work of fiction.
Things to remember while reading "On the Rainy River":
- O'Brien was drafted after graduating from Macalester College in Minnesota in 1968. In 1969 he began his tour of duty in Vietnam, where he served in an army infantry unit. When he left Vietnam a year later, he had earned a Purple Heart for being wounded and had been promoted to sergeant. Upon returning to the United States, O'Brien became one of America's leading writers on the Vietnam War and its impact on U.S. soldiers who served there.
- Canada remained officially neutral throughout the Vietnam War, although it provided $9 million to South Vietnam for medical supplies and training. Canada's political leaders did not openly criticize U.S. involvement in the war. But they also made little effort to stop draft evaders from settling within the country's borders, and most Canadian communities welcomed the American exiles.
Excerpt from Tim O'Brien's short story "On the Rainy River":
In June of 1968, a month after graduating from Macalester College, I was drafted to fight a war I hated. I was twenty-one years old. Young, yes, and politically naive, but even so the American war in Vietnam seemed to me wrong. Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons. I saw no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law. . . .
The draft notice arrived on June 17, 1968. It was a humid afternoon, I remember, cloudy and very quiet, and I'd just come in from a round of golf. My mother and father were having lunch out in the kitchen. I remember opening up the letter, scanning the first few lines, feeling the blood go thick behind my eyes. I remember a sound in myhead. It wasn't thinking, just a silent howl. A million things all at once—I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. . . . I was no soldier. I hated Boy Scouts. I hated camping out. I hated dirt and tents and mosquitos. The sight of blood made me queasy, and I couldn't tolerate authority, and I didn't know a rifle from a slingshot. . . . I remember the rage in my stomach. Later it burned down to a smoldering self-pity, then to numbness. At dinner that night my father asked what my plans were. "Nothing," I said. "Wait."
[He spent the summer working in a meat-packing plant in Minnesota.] In the evenings I'd sometimes borrow my father's car and drive aimlessly around town, feeling sorry for myself, thinking about the war and the pig factory and how my life seemed to be collapsing toward slaughter. I felt paralyzed. All around me the options seemed to be narrowing, as if I were hurtling down a huge black funnel, the whole world squeezing in tight. There was no happy way out. The government had ended most graduate school deferments; the waiting lists for the National Guard and Reserves were impossibly long; my health was solid; I didn't qualify for CO status—no religious grounds, no history as a pacifist. Moreover, I could not claim to be opposed to war as a matter of general principle. There were occasions, I believed, when a nation was justified in using military force to achieve its ends, to stop a Hitler or some comparable evil, and I told myself that in such circumstances I would've willingly marched off to the battle. The problem, though, was that a draft board did not let you choose your war. Beyond all this, or at the very center, was the raw fact of terror. I did not want to die. . . .
At some point in mid-July I began thinking seriously about Canada. The border lay a few hundred miles north, an eight-hour drive. Both my conscience and my instincts were telling me to make a break for it, just take off and run like hell and never stop. . . . I couldn't make up my mind. I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile.
I was afraid of walking away from my own life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything that mattered to me. I feared losing the respect of my parents. I feared the law. I feared ridicule and censure. My hometown was a conservative little spot on the prairie, a place where tradition counted, and it was easy to imagine people sitting around a table down at the old Gobbler Cafe on Main Street, coffee cups poised, the conversation slowly zeroing in on the young O'Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada. . . .
[After weeks of agonizing, he makes a sudden decision to run for Canada. He packs a suitcase and drives north toward the Canadianborder.] It was pure flight, fast and mindless. I had no plan. Just hit the border at high speed and crash through and keep on running. . . . I spent the night in the car behind a closed-down gas station a half mile from the border. In the morning, after gassing up, I headed straight west along the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada, and which for me separated one life from another. The land was mostly wilderness. Here and there I passed a motel or bait shop, but otherwise the country unfolded in great sweeps of pine and birch and sumac. . . .
[Tired and confused, he rents a room at an old fishing lodge just south of the border. The lodge is owned by a quiet, elderly man named Elroy Berdahl. The two spend the next several days together, sharing meals, hiking through the woods, playing Scrabble, and reading in front of the fireplace.] We spent six days together at the Tip Top Lodge. Just the two of us. Tourist season was over, and there were no boats on the river, and the wilderness seemed to withdraw into a great permanent stillness. . . . One thing for certain, he knew I was in desperate trouble. And he knew I couldn't talk about it. The wrong word—or even the right word—and I would've disappeared. I was wired and jittery. My skin felt too tight. . . . I went through whole days feeling dizzy with sorrow. I couldn't sleep; I couldn't lie still. At night I'd toss around in bed, half awake, half dreaming, imagining how I'd sneak down to the beach and quietly push one of the old man's boats out into the river and start paddling my way toward Canada. . . . It all seemed crazy and impossible. Twenty-one years old, an ordinary kid with all the ordinary dreams and ambitions, and all I wanted was to live the life I was born to—a mainstream life—I loved baseball and hamburgers and cherry Cokes—and now I was off on the margins of exile, leaving my country forever, and it seemed so impossible and terrible and sad.
[He enjoys Elroy's quiet company but remains tormented by the thought of entering Canada to evade the draft.] During that long summer I'd been over and over the various arguments, all the pros and cons, and it was no longer a question that could be decided by an act of pure reason. Intellect had come up against emotion. My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. Hot, stupid shame. I did not want people to think badly of me. Not my parents, not my brother and sister, not even the folks down at the Gobbler Cafe. I was ashamed to be there at the Tip Top Lodge. I was ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing. Some of this Elroy must've understood. Not the details, of course, but the plain fact of crisis.
On my last full day, the sixth day, the old man took me out fishing on the Rainy River. The afternoon was sunny and cold. . . . All around us, I remember, there was a vastness to the world, an unpeopled rawness, just the trees and the sky and the water reaching out toward nowhere. The air had the brittle scent of October. . . . For a time I didn't pay attention to anything, just feeling the cold spray against my face, but then it occurred to me that at some point we must've passed into Canadian waters, across that dotted line between two different worlds, and I remember a certain tightness in my chest as I looked up and watched the far shore come at me. This wasn't a daydream. It was tangible and real. As we came in toward land, Elroy cut the engine, letting the boat fishtail lightly about twenty yards off shore. The old man didn't look at me or speak. Bending down, he opened up his tackle box and busied himself with a bobber and a piece of wire leader, humming to himself, his eyes down.
It struck me then that he must've planned it. I'll never be certain, of course, but I think he meant to bring me up against the realities, to guide me across the river and to take me to the edge and to stand a kind of vigil as I chose a life for myself.
I remember staring at the old man, then at my hands, then at Canada. . . . Twenty yards. I could've done it. I could've jumped and started swimming for my life. Inside me, in my chest, I felt a terrible squeezing pressure. Even now, as I write this, I can still feel that tightness. And I want you to feel it—the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier. You're at the bow of a boat on the Rainy River. You're twenty-one years old, you're scared, and there's a hard squeezing pressure in your chest.
What would you do?
Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you're leaving behind? Would it hurt? Would it feel like dying? Would you cry, as I did?
I tried to swallow it back. I tried to smile, except I was crying. . . .
At the rear of the boat Elroy Berdahl pretended not to notice. He held a fishing rod in his hands, his head bowed to hide his eyes. He kept humming a soft, monotonous little tune. Everywhere, it seemed, in the trees and water and sky, a great worldwide sadness came pressing down on me, a crushing sorrow, sorrow like I had never known it before. And what was so sad, I realized, was that Canada hadbecome a pitiful fantasy. Silly and hopeless. It was no longer a possibility. Right then, with the shore so close, I understood that I would not do what I should do. I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. . . . All those eyes on me—the town, the whole universe—and I couldn't risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! They yelled. Turncoat! . . . . I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was.
And right then I submitted.
I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.
That was the sad thing. And so I sat in the bow of the boat and cried. . . . Elroy Berdahl remained quiet. He kept fishing. He worked his line with the tips of his fingers, patiently, squinting out at his red and white bobber on the Rainy River. . . . Then after a time the old man pulled in his line and turned the boat back toward Minnesota.
I don't remember saying goodbye. That last night we had dinner together, and I went to bed early, and in the morning Elroy fixed breakfast for me. When I told him I'd be leaving, the old man nodded as if he already knew. He looked down at the table and smiled.
At some point later in the morning it's possible that we shook hands—I just don't remember—but I do know that by the time I'd finished packing the old man had disappeared. Around noon, when I took my suitcase out to the car, I noticed that his old black pickup truck was no longer parked in front of the house. I went inside and waited for a while, but I felt a bone certainty that he wouldn't be back. . . . I washed up the breakfast dishes. . . . got into the car, and drove south toward home.
The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.
What happened next . . .
Throughout the course of the Vietnam War, the U.S. government and the legal system made changes to the Selective Service system. Many of these changes were designed to address the charges that the draft rules placed an unfair burden on America's less economically and politically powerful families. But the draft remained controversial, and legal challenges to Selective Service policies made the system increasingly ineffective.
In 1967 deferments for graduate school were eliminated, although students currently enrolled were usually permitted to keep their deferments. Two years later, the government placed additional restrictions on deferments. At the same time, it introduced a random draft lottery in an effort to draw troops more equally from all American communities. But draft evasion remained widespread, overwhelming federal efforts to enforce the Selective Service laws.
Finally, in 1971, President Nixon eliminated student deferments altogether. But by this time the American withdrawal of troops was well underway, so the move did not have a major impact. On January 27, 1973, Nixon formally shut down the Vietnam-era draft for good.
Nixon's decision to end the draft delighted the many Americans who had opposed the war. But it did not end the legal problems of those Americans who had illegally resisted the Selective Service system in one way or another. Approximately 280,000 civilians remained in trouble with the law for their actions. These included convicted draft resisters and men who had moved to Canada or other foreign countries to avoid induction.
Many Americans thought that the federal government should dismiss the charges that these civilians faced and let them resume their lives. Some argued that they should be "pardoned"—forgiven for crimes committed against the government. Others, including many of the draft resisters and evaders, argued that they should receive an "amnesty." Under an amnesty, all legal charges would be dropped, just as with a pardon. But an amnesty was viewed as an admission that the government had been wrong to prosecute the resisters and evaders for following their beliefs.
Not all Americans believed that amnesties or pardons should be granted, however. In fact, political conservatives, veterans groups, and many other Americans thought that the men who had disobeyed their draft orders should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This issue became yet another point of division in American society until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter approved an unconditional amnesty to those who had gotten in legal trouble for their peaceful opposition to the war.
Since Nixon ended the military draft in 1973, the United States has only used volunteers in its armed forces. Since 1980, however, young men have been required to register with the federal government when they turn 18 years old. This law ensures that the government can renew the military draft at any time if necessary.
Did you know . . .
- A 1966 study revealed that only 1.3 percent of draft board members in American communities were black. Women, meanwhile, were prohibited from serving on draft boards altogether until 1967, when Congress changed the rules.
- Approximately 1.4 million young men who were eligible for the draft were excused from serving because they failed intelligence exams.
- College students who posted poor grades ran the danger of losing their deferments and becoming eligible for the draft. This factor made many male students devote more time to their classes. It also put extra pressure on some college professors. They knew that if they gave a student a failing grade, the student might lose his deferment and eventually end up in Vietnam.
Appy, Christian G. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Baskir, Lawrence, and William A. Strauss. Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
Gottlieb, Sherry Gershon. Hell No, We Won't Go: Resisting the Draft during the Vietnam War. New York: Viking, 1991.
Hall, Mitchell. Because of Their Faith: CALCAV and Religious Opposition to the Vietnam War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Levy, David W. The Debate Over Vietnam. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Marrin, Albert. America and Vietnam: The Elephant and the Tiger. New York: Viking, 1992.
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Tollefson, James W. The Strength Not to Fight: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors of the Vietnam War. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.
Wells, Tom. The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Williams, Roger N. The New Exiles: American War Resisters in Canada. New York: Liveright, 1971.
Avoiding the Draft in North Vietnam
Some North Vietnamese men tried to evade their own country's military draft during the Vietnam War. Many families supported their sons in this effort. Important officials in the government often arranged to keep their sons out of the military by sending them overseas to study. Ordinary families, meanwhile, hid their sons or bribed doctors to disqualify them from service.
"Many parents tried to keep their sons out of the army," recalled one North Vietnamese man in Vietnam: A Portrait of Its People at War. "They would hide them when they were called up by the recruiting center. Anyone who didn't show up automatically had his rice ration cut off. But families would buy food on the black market or just get along by sharing whatever they had. They would survive that way while they tried to scrape up enough to bribe a recruiting official to fix up the files. Other draftees mutilated themselves or managed to find other ways to fail the physical. People with money were able to pay doctors to disqualify their children. These kinds of things were easier to do in the three big cities—Hanoi, Haiphong, and Nam Dinh . . . where the government officials and Party leaders lived. Many of them were looking for ways to keep their children out too. . . . And people had more money in these places, so corruption was more a normal thing. Also, it was simply easier to hide in the cities and there was more information about how to stay out. The result was that the big majority of the Northern army was made up of young people from the countryside. They were just more naive. They believed the propaganda more easily. They didn't have the same chances to get out of it."
Born October 1, 1946
American writer and Vietnam War veteran
Award-winning author Tim O'Brien is one of America's best-known writers about the Vietnam War. A Vietnam veteran, O'Brien has drawn upon his wartime experiences to write several classic literary works about the conflict, including Going after Cacciato (1978), The Things They Carried (1990), and In the Lake of the Woods (1994).
Growing up in Minnesota
Tim O'Brien was born in the small town of Austin, Minnesota, on October 1, 1946. His parents were William T. O'Brien, an insurance salesman, and Ava (Schulz) O'Brien, a schoolteacher. Looking back on his childhood, O'Brien described himself as a shy and lonely youngster who had difficulty making friends. As he grew older, he used magic tricks as a way to gain approval and applause from his peers. "There's a real appeal in that for a lonely little kid in a lonely little town, to get that kind of love and applause and to feel you have some control," O'Brien recalled in Booklist.
After graduating from high school, O'Brien enrolled at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He eventually became one of Macalester's leading student activists. In fact, he campaigned for a wide range of social and political causes around campus, ranging from efforts to reform the college's grading system and its policies toward women students to participation in demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War was a conflict that pitted the U.S. supported nation of South Vietnam against the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies in the South. The Viet Cong were guerrilla fighters who wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and unite the two countries under one Communist government. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the United States sent money, weapons, and military advisors to South Vietnam to help it fend off the Viet Cong. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) sent American combat troops to fight on the side of South Vietnam. But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war settled into a bloody stalemate, and the American public became bitterly divided about how to proceed in Vietnam.
O'Brien receives his draft notice
In 1968 O'Brien graduated from Macalester with a bachelor's degree in political science. An honor student, he was offered a full scholarship to continue his education at Harvard University. But then he received his draft notice to report for duty in the U.S. Army. O'Brien spent the next several months agonizing about whether to obey the draft. He thought about going to jail or fleeing the country in order to avoid being sent to fight a war in which he did not believe. But he knew that many of his family and friends would be angry and ashamed of him if he did not answer his country's call. "It was the most terrible summer of my life," he told the New York Times. "My conscience kept telling me not to go, but my whole upbringing told me I had to."
O'Brien finally decided to obey his draft notice. But he later confessed in the New York Times Magazine that he did so only because "I could not bear the prospect of rejection . . . by my family, my country, my friends, my hometown. I would risk conscience and rectitude [moral righteousness] before risking the loss of love. . . . I was a coward. I went to Vietnam."
O'Brien in Vietnam
O'Brien arrived in Vietnam in February 1969. He was assigned to an infantry unit in Quang Ngai Province, a region of central South Vietnam along the South China Sea. O'Brien soon learned that he had been sent to one of the country's deadliest places. Viet Cong guerrilla fighters roamed throughout the forests and villages of the region, despite the best efforts of American infantry squads and airpower.
O'Brien spent the next several months taking part in patrols deep into the Quang Ngai countryside. His unit regularly passed through My Lai, a village where hundreds of unarmed peasants had been brutally massacred by U.S. troops only a few months earlier. The My Lai atrocity was concealed from the American public and U.S. soldiers for more than a year, but O'Brien recalled that the atmosphere surrounding the village was tense and hateful. "The My Lai area . . . scared ... me, to be honest with you," he told Booklist. "It was a spooky, evil place on the earth. . . . It scared everybody, and that was before we knew what had gone on."
As the weeks passed by, O'Brien became accustomed to the death and destruction that surrounded him. "Back in 1969, the wreckage was all around us, so common it seemed part of the geography, as natural as any mountain or river," he wrote in the New York Times Magazine. "Wreckage was the rule. Brutality was S.O.P. [standard operating procedure]. Scalded children, pistol-whipped women, burning hooches [huts], free-fire zones [regions in which U.S. soldiers had approval to shoot anyone they saw], body counts, indiscriminate bombing and harassment fire, villages in ash, M-60 machine guns hosing down dark green tree lines and any human life behind them."
In March 1970 O'Brien was discharged from the U.S. Army with the rank of sergeant. He returned home with a Purple Heart medal he received after suffering a minor shrapnel wound while out on patrol. Years later, O'Brien marveled at the swift change in environment that he and other soldiers experienced when they left the jungles of Vietnam to return to their hometowns. "It was fast and effortless, just like gliding out of a nightmare," he recalled in Publishers Weekly.
Upon returning to America, O'Brien enrolled at Harvard University to pursue a degree in government. But the year he spent in Vietnam continued to haunt him, and he began to compose a journal in which he described his wartime experiences. As O'Brien worked on the book, he spent hours thinking about the grim and horrible events that he witnessed during the war. But he also spent a lot of time reflecting about the ways in which Vietnam gave him a greater appreciation for love, friendship, and the simplest pleasures of life.
O'Brien's first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, was published in 1973. This nonfiction work described all stages of O'Brien's Vietnam experience—from military training through combat to homecoming—in a series of story-like essays that were praised for their realism and honesty. "In a style which is lucid [easily understood], relaxed, razor-sharp, and consciously dispassionate, the wasteland of Vietnam unreels before us [in O'Brien's memoir]," wrote one reviewer in The New Statesman.
Writing about the war
O'Brien followed up If I Die in a Combat Zone with Northern Lights (1975), his first novel. The story follows two brothers whose lives become endangered during a stormy cross-country ski trip. One of the brothers is a Vietnam War veteran who is loved by his patriotic father, while the other is the family "failure" who did not fight for his country. As the ski trip turns into a perilous struggle, however, it is the "failure" who takes the lead in ensuring their survival.
Northern Lights received mixed reviews from critics, but the experience of writing a novel convinced O'Brien to dedicate himself to a literary career. "There came a point when I had to decide where I was going to devote my time," he told Publishers Weekly, "and I decided that I wanted to be a writer and not a scholar." He dropped out of Harvard in 1976 and began writing full-time.
Going after Cacciato
In 1978 O'Brien published Going after Cacciato, a novel that wove two storylines together into one powerful work. Part of the novel describes the experiences of one battered, war-weary platoon of U.S. infantrymen as they struggle to survive in Vietnam.
The other section of the book follows the war-ravaged fantasies of one member of the unit. Assigned to night guard duty, the soldier imagines chasing an actual deserter from the platoon—Cacciato—all across Vietnam to the streets of Paris, France.
Going after Cacciato was widely hailed as one of the finest books ever written about the Vietnam War. It won the prestigious National Book Award and established O'Brien as one of the country's leading voices on the war. It also led many Vietnam veterans to contact him by telephone or letter to share their own wartime experiences. O'Brien confessed, however, that their letters and phone calls left him with mixed feelings. "It has been a bittersweet experience," he told the Christian Science Monitor. "The letters mean a lot because I had wanted to touch on something that was common to us all. But I found myself involved in so many hour-long phone calls from shattered guys that it was like reliving the war all over again."
The Things They Carried
In the mid-1980s O'Brien concentrated on writing projects that explored a variety of non-Vietnam topics. But in 1990 he returned to the Vietnam War again with a short story collection called The Things They Carried. Many of the events described in The Things They Carried closely mirrored O'Brien's own experiences. In addition, many of the interrelated stories are set in O'Brien's home state of Minnesota or in Quang Ngai Province, where he was stationed during the war. Moreover, the collection features several characters who are closely based on soldiers that O'Brien met in Vietnam. Finally, the volume is narrated by a character named "Tim O'Brien." Still, O'Brien has described the book as a work of fiction.
When The Things They Carried was published, it immediately attracted a great deal of popular and critical attention. Booklist hailed it as a "compassionate, complex, magnificent novel of self-acceptance and renewal." The New York Times Book Review offered a similar assessment, calling the collection "one of the finest books, fact or fiction, written about the Vietnam War.... By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, [O'Brien] placed The Things They Carried high up on the list of best fiction about any war." And Publishers Weekly commented that "O'Brien's meditations—on war and memory, on darkness and light—suffuses [spreads through] the entire work with a kind of poetic form, making for a highly original, fully realized novel. . . . The book is persuasive in its desperate hope that stories can save us."
The Things They Carried received several literary awards in the months following its publication, and it was nominated for a number of other prestigious honors. Since then, O'Brien's collection has retained a prominent place in discussions about enduring Vietnam War literature. In fact, The Things They Carried is now generally regarded as the single greatest work of literature ever written about the American experience in Vietnam.
Returning to Vietnam
O'Brien wrote about Vietnam once again in 1994's In the Lake of the Woods. This novel explores the disappearance of a woman after her husband's political career is destroyed by revelations that he was present at the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. In the Lake of the Woods received several honors, including recognition from the New York Times Book Review as the best book of fiction of 1994. But it did not enjoy the same level of critical or popular success as The Things They Carried.
O'Brien also made a special journey to Vietnam in 1994. He returned to Quang Ngai Province, the region where he had served during the war. During his trip, he met many men and women who had been caught up in the war, including former Viet Cong officers and survivors of the My Lai massacre. Upon returning to the United States, O'Brien said that the trip helped heal some of the lingering emotional wounds from his first Vietnam experience. "There was a new Vietnam in my thoughts," he told Booklist. "It's a nice feeling to find the geography, to walk in the backyard again and not really remember what happened so much as feel blown away by the utter peace that's replaced what was horror."
O'Brien continues to explore a variety of subjects in his writing. His 1998 novel Tomcat in Love, for example, centered on the relationships between men and women. But he remains best known for his works on the Vietnam War. Indeed, it is the power of O'Brien's Vietnam-related works that led the San Francisco Examiner to call him the "best American writer of his generation" in 1998.
Beidler, Philip D. Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
Kaplan, Steven. Understanding Tim O'Brien. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Mort, John. "The Booklist Interview: Tim O'Brien." Booklist, August 1994.
O'Brien, Tim. If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. New York: Delacorte, 1973.
O'Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. Boston: Seymour Lawrence/Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Seymour Lawrence/Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
O'Brien, Tim. "The Vietnam in Me." New York Times Magazine, October 2, 1994.
Schroeder, Eric James. Vietnam, We've All Been There: Interviews with American Writers. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.
"Tim O'Brien." Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 9: American Writers of the Vietnam War, Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.
Nationality: American. Born: William Timothy O'Brien in Austin, Minnesota, 1 October 1946. Education: Macalaster College, St. Paul, Minnesota, B.A. in political science (summa cum laude) 1968; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970-76. Military Service: Served in the United States Army during the Vietnam war; discharged wounded 1970: Purple Heart. Career: Reporter, Washington Post, 1971-74. Awards: National Book award, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts award; Bread Loaf Writers Conference award; Heartland Award, 1990; Melcher Book Award, 1991. L.H.D., Miami University (Ohio), 1990. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.
Going after Cacciato. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Cape, 1978.
The Nuclear Age. Portland, Oregon, Press 22, 1981; London, Collins, 1986.
In the Lake of the Woods. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Tomcat in Love. New York, Broadway Books, 1998.
The Things They Carried. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Collins, 1990.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Keeping Watch by Night," in Redbook (New York), December1976.
"Night March," in Prize Stories of 1976, edited by William Abrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1976.
"Fisherman," in Esquire (New York), October 1977.
"Calling Home," in Redbook (New York), December 1977.
"Speaking of Courage," in Prize Stories of 1978, edited by WilliamAbrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1978.
"Civil Defense," in Esquire (New York), August 1980.
"The Ghost Soldiers," in Prize Stories of 1982, edited by WilliamAbrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1982.
"Quantum Jumps," in The Pushcart Prize 10, edited by Bill Henderson. Wainscott, New York, Pushcart Press, 1985.
"Underground Tests," in The Esquire Fiction Reader 2, edited byRust Hills and Tom Jenks. Green Harbor, Massachusetts, Wampeter Press, 1986.
"The Lives of the Dead," in Esquire (New York), January 1989.
"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," in Esquire (New York), July1989.
"In the Field," in Gentlemen's Quarterly (New York), December1989.
"Enemies and Friends," in Harper's (New York), March 1990.
"Field Trip," in McCall's (New York), August 1990.
"Speaking of Courage," in The Other Side of Heaven: Post-War Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers, edited by Wayne Karling. Williamatic, Connecticut, Curbstone Press, 1995.
If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (memoirs).New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Calder and Boyars, 1973; revised edition, Delacorte Press, 1979.
Speaking of Courage. Santa Barbara, California, Neville, 1980.*
"Imagining the Real: The Fiction of Tim O'Brien" by Daniel L. Zins, in Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), June 1986; "Tim O'Brien's Myth of Courage" by Milton J. Bates, in Critique (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1987; Understanding Tim O'Brien by Steven Kaplan, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1994; Tim O'Brien by Tobey C. Herzog, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1997.* * *
Looking back, it almost seems as if, during the 1970s and 1980s, in order to have a book acclaimed as one of the best pieces of writing to emerge from the Vietnam War, all an author needed to do was get it published. Whatever the reason for the hype, some highly commendable work was produced as a result of America's military misadventures in southeast Asia. Few writers contribute more than once to the list though, and few have really been able to forge much headway beyond their first couple of books. Tim O'Brien is the exception.
O'Brien's debut, If I Die in a Combat Zone, a collection of newspaper and magazine journalism supplemented by other articles, would have been enough to ensure him a lasting reputation as a gritty and reliable witness to some of the worst stupidity of the war in Vietnam. Anecdotal and sometimes jarring in its juxtaposition of Socratic dialogue and personal meditation, If I Die in a Combat Zone is a clear-sighted and unsensationalist account of one young enlistee's fears and aspirations. In no way does it prepare us for Going after Cacciato, O'Brien's intense, impressionistic, and impassioned fictionalization of the experiences of ordinary combat personnel in Vietnam. Here O'Brien's narrative stretches across Asia and Europe as the remaining members of a platoon hunt a deserter. Gradually it becomes evident that this epic chase is a graft of fantasy onto fact—Paul Berlin, the central character, and his colleagues follow their prey no further than a grassy knoll not far from their departure point. The subsequent developments are all the products of an imagination feverishly creating alternative scenarios to the horrors of a foot-soldier's daily existence. Reality becomes malleable as O'Brien weaves memorable sections of recalled events—sentry duty, ambush, patrol, and death—into the path of Cacciato's flight. Imagination is the metaphor for and means of survival—a theme that unites O'Brien's work.
Northern Lights brings together two brothers—one returned from Vietnam, the other homebound—and pitches them into a battle for life in the untamed Minnesotan Arrowhead country after a skiing trip goes disastrously wrong. In a not unexpected role reversal, Harvey, who has proved his manhood in battle, becomes utterly dependent upon Paul, who has "flown a desk" for the duration. O'Brien's portrayals of an impersonal but fiercely hostile winter wilderness and the oppressive atmosphere of a dying small town are vivid and impressive. Northern Lights also introduces us, somewhat ominously, to a bomb shelter dug by Harvey.
O'Brien's third novel, The Nuclear Age, draws that shelter out of the background and deposits it in a dominant position, in the middle (and beginning and end) of the plot. William Cowling, the narrator of this tale of paranoia and atrophied passion, has led a life determined by dread—the same interminable panic felt by O'Brien in Vietnam but modified into the more universal concept of the all-consuming terror of nuclear Armageddon. As a child he constructed a refuge in his basement out of a ping-pong table, surrounding it at one point with pencils purloined from school, in the belief that radiation from a nuclear explosion would not penetrate the "lead." At college, Cowling's personal antibomb protests are mistaken for the actions of a putative politician, and he is soon embroiled in campus revolt, orchestrated by Sarah, the childhood sweetheart he never had. The primary motive of the hero is, however, self-preservation: "She was out to change the world, I was out to survive it." As Cowling grows out of love with Sarah, so his concern with his imminent obliteration becomes more profound, and we join him, late at night, in his garden, obeying the "voice" of a hole that is telling him to dig or perish.
The Things They Carried, more short story cycle than novel, reads so much like a memoir that the author has to emphasize, in a subtitle and prefatory note, that what follows is "a work of fiction." The intensely autobiographical tone of the stories is underscored by the presence of a first person narrator named Tim O'Brien. The stories that follow all attempt to come to terms with the narrator's Vietnam experience and frequently try to account for the purpose of telling or writing stories. "How to Tell a True War Story" begins with the assertion, "This is true" and, like many of the other stories in the collection, goes on to question what truth is. Truth and reality are even fuzzier in Vietnam than elsewhere, and examining how experience is converted into meaning matters more than trying to figure out what is real. Despite the narrator's playing with the notion of truth in stories, the reader comes away from these stories with a sense of the awful truth that was Vietnam, though we share the frustrations of the various storytellers, who will never quite be able to communicate their experience.
This frustration becomes the theme of O'Brien's next novel, In the Lake of the Woods, the story of John Wade, who goes into exile after losing a primary election for U.S. senate, and his wife Kathy, who disappears while they are in exile. The novel comprises various testimonies of people who knew John, the local authorities who suspect foul play, neighbors who try to comfort John after the disappearance, and other "evidence" in the form of documents chronicling Wade's life. Bringing it all together is a narrator who is self-conscious about his role as a writer, and his inability to "know" anything beyond direct personal experience. "Evidence is not truth," he tells us in a footnote, "and if you require solutions, you will have to look beyond these pages." Like the rest of O'Brien's work, this novel takes on Vietnam, yet more obliquely; Wade had been involved in the My Lai incident, and his experience there becomes part of the evidence in his case. The connection is clear enough: despite all of our various attempts to make sense of the disturbing side of human existence, our capacity to understand is limited. O'Brien has certainly not left the war behind, but he has gotten beyond the war itself and begun to delve into its long-term implications. He remains the most compelling voice to emerge from the Vietnam war, but he is also developing into a master of storytelling who is aware of his craft and of the necessity for its continuation.
updated by D. Quentin Miller
O'BRIEN, Tim. American, b. 1946. Genres: Novels. Career: Writer. National affairs reporter for the Washington Post. Publications: NOVELS: Northern Lights, 1974; Going after Cacciato, 1978 (National Book Award); The Nuclear Age, 1981; In the Lake of the Woods, 1994; Tomcat in Love, 1998; July, July, 2002. OTHER: If I Die in a Combat Zone, 1973; Tennessee: Off the Beaten Path, 1990; The Things They Carried, 1990. Contributor to books and periodicals. Address: c/o ICM, 40 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019, U.S.A.