Monday, April 05, 2010

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried

I stayed up too late last night reading this book, which was beautiful and devastating and true, even though the subtitle says it's a work of fiction. Yes, I know I'm about 20 years behind the trend on this one, but it's been on my shelf forever and I finally pulled it down to read it. You probably have it on your shelf, too. If you don't, go get it. Then try reading the first (title) story and see if you don't end up reading the whole darn thing. My favorite piece was "On the Rainy River," which is about a young man drafted to the Vietnam War, and his crisis of conscience as he grapples with the idea of fleeing to Canada. It had me openly weeping.

Here's a sample of why the writing's so good:

"The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a a man's habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jenson, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover."

See how he did that? Sly, isn't it? The string of "things" in a dream-like list that's interesting because of it's specificity. The repeated "ssss" from the plurals, the salt tablets, sewing, certificates, the hard "k" of candy and Kool-Aid and canteen. The way he lets the reader feel smart by not spelling out R&R and SOP. The just-right brushstrokes of characterization: Henry's got a sweet tooth, Dave's hygienic, Ted Lavender is scared and, in an exquisite curve ball from what's basically a list poem, gets shot in the head outside of Than Khe. O'Brien lulls you into his prose then reminds you, this is, after all, war. But I'll quote the author, from the excellent "How to Tell a War Story," that in describing Tim O'Brien's collection I'd say: "It wasn't a war story. It was a love story."


Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

I read a war story recently that was very bad. Sounds like I should have read this one instead.

6:04 AM  
Blogger Lana Gramlich said...

Wow. Sounds powerful.

7:39 PM  
Blogger M said...

"the things they carried" is one of my favorite works of fiction, without a doubt. i first read it years ago and has stayed with me ever since. the scene when the soldier drives around and around before doing himself will haunt me forever.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Shreena :) said...

I just finished reading this book last night and then stumbled across your blog.

The Things They Carried is one of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever read. It's beautiful. The corruption of innocence .. the way imagined stories are truer than reality .. entire descriptions that make you shiver only to find out they didn't actually occur .. it's a work of art.

10:20 PM  

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