The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
Mariner Books

Tim O'Brien's sublime collection of short stories with a Vietnam War era theme is my fourth entry into the Books You Oughta Read Before You Kick list. The Things They Carried joins the likes of Joyce's The Dubliners and Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio in the ultimate triad of linked short fiction.

 Love And Leadership

O'Brien's stories are incisive and brutally honest; they cut to the quick, revealing the painful profundity along with the bathos of war. In the title story, while trekking the swamps and jungle terrain of Vietnam, Lt Cross carries with him letters, small items, fetishes: a pebble he keeps in his mouth to remind him of his sweetheart, Martha back home in the states. Although he knows now his love will go unrequited, he still fantasizes about her and a normal life. Shaky Ted Lavender carries pot and pain killers. Religious Kiowa carries an illustrated New Testament. Giant Henry Dobbins superstitiously carries extra rations and wears his girlfriend's pantyhose like a scarf. O'Brien reveals his characters outer roles as well as their inner lives through all these things they carry. When Lavender is killed in an ambush, every man mourns in his own way. For Lt Cross, Ted's death is his epiphany; he burns Martha's letters and vows to put aside his need to be loved - by her or by his men - focusing instead on his job of platoon leader.

Decision and Guilt

In another story, On the Rainy River, after receiving his draft notice, the character Tim O'Brien wrestles with the notion of defecting to Canada. Soon enough, guilt - of how he will be perceived by his family, friends, neighbors - beats him down One day at work though, he feels something "rupture" in his chest and he finds himself heading west from his home in Minnesota toward the Canadian border. He stops short of the border at a roadside fishing resort run by a wise, bald old timer named Elroy Berdahl. Tim spends six days there, fishing with Elroy and hinting around his conundrum. On his last day Tim and Elroy head out in the boat and wind up drifting not 25 yards from the Canadian shore, where Tim's emotions come to a head. Elroy, more than just a father figure acts as mirror, showing him Canada then showing him himself.

 The Ravages Of War

The author
Tim O'Brien
From story to story, O'Brien masterfully lays bare the ravages of war, its direct and collateral victims; not just the physical, but more importantly the psychological wounds; open wounds that are stubborn to heal. He confronts his readers, almost naively asking, "What would you have done?" In the penultimate story Night Life, Rat Kiley, a medic, is pushed to the brink, ultimately wounding himself to gain egress from the hell of the bush. He is forced to pit his drive to survive against losing face amid his peers. O'Brien explores these difficult questions throughout The Things They Carried, letting his characters fail as well as succeed and in so doing allowing them to grow. They're people who are able to - and this is more than we can say for America when left to relinquish defeat in Vietnam - mature just a little; grow older, wiser and move on.

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (October 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780618706419

Other books by Tim O'Brien include:
Going After Cacciato
July, July