Each year, there is an event sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts called The Big Read. The idea is that whole communities, generally through the local library, pick one of (this year) 21 books for people to read. The Albany Fund for Education, a “not-for-profit charitable organization that raises funds for innovative programs in support of the Albany City School District” picked Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Free copies were distributed through the branches of the Albany Public Library, of which I am an active and vocal supporter. I had never participated before, but this time, someone literally had a copy of the book, said, “You ought to read this, it’s good,” and put it in my hands.
It’s helpful that it reads on the title page, “a work of fiction” because I would have thought otherwise. Indeed, the book is true, even if a few of the circumstances have changed. There’s quite a bit of contemplation about what “truth” is in the book, including the chapter, “How to tell a true war story.”
This is the narrative of a bunch of soldiers, including one named Tim O’Brien, who ended up fighting in the Vietnam war, not always clear on the motivation. Some of the guys made it back home, others didn’t. Those who made it sometimes had a difficult time, and those who didn’t have a hard time felt some pangs of guilt over THAT.
The writing style is intentionally nonlinear. It does not start at the beginning and go to the end. Sometimes, one gets a bit of recapitulation, so that by the end of the story, one KNOWS these guys, and can relate to their travails.
During the war, going off to Canada was an option many men considered, and some actually did, to avoid the war. Other thought of this as an act of cowardice, but if you read “On the Rainy River,” you might think otherwise.
The book was published in 1990, and about half of the 20-odd stories had been previously published, five in Esquire magazine. The edition I have is from 2009, suggesting that, when it is well told, the experience of war is, unfortunately, timeless.
Here’s a study guide of this extremely positively-reviewed book.