I first came across The Things They Carried in a fiction class at NC State University. While on book tour, Jill McCorkle had assigned us the title story for homework. I read it thinking people can’t write fiction by writing lists. As an avid list-maker at my ripe old age of twenty-five, this was a harsh critique I made. I generalized war. Having read the title story, I assumed that I had completed the book and didn’t have any other purpose of reading some hopeless war stories. Some hopeless war stories, who do I think I am? Truth is, I’m America.
We sit on subways, drive our cars with radio buzzing, read the newspaper, eat our bagels and our grits in the morning. My mother oozes over the Newspaper, reads every word, every caption, sends me the uplifting pieces, cut-out haphazardly, by mail. She might whisper, “oh, that’s awful” under her breath while my dad coats his cereal in blueberries and slices through a strawberry until the knife is just noting his finger. I read these things about another seven soldiers killed by roadside bombs in Afghanistan or a tour guide who stepped on a field explosive and is living with one leg. I don’t think about them afterwards unless I’m lying awake at night. I don’t think about the burning feeling in the legs of soldiers who have walked miles and then are killed in a hum. I might think about the mothers because those are people I know. I know a mother, I know a sister waiting on a letter, a girlfriend waiting for a boy to return with a stiff cap and a smile that hides every single thing he just lived through, lived. through.
When I think about war, I just think about women sitting on balconies staring off into wheat fields waiting on men with coal faces to come humbly up the drive. I think of gravel and dirt. I think of Rosie the Riveter, more her headgear than her symbolism. I don’t think about actual men fighting a war. In fact, I’m not sure until I read this book that I had the capacity to think about much more than widows, letter-writing and the “pretty” of the Civil War. When I think of war, I think of the Civil War because I live in the South. I’m not sure why this is. It’s like the South engrains that war into your head from a young age. You see the ignorance of the rebel flag on the backs of muddin’ trucks. It’s one of those “gotta live there things.”
This isn’t war. Cassie’s head doesn’t always filter things together correctly. War isn’t a pretty girl in a long dress writing a letter to Dear John on her porch. It isn’t coaled-face men, sweaty men, men who have no history.
Tim O’Brien opened me up to my own history and my own small idea of the world with his book The Things They Carried. And let me tell you, they carried a lot. Girlfriends always joke that they have too much baggage for a new relationship, but this is not trivial. In Vietnam, they carried letters (like I thought) to girls with Volleyball thighs, they carried guns that I can’t spell the name of, high school graduations, ideas about fleeing to Canada, pantyhose from their woman’s sock drawer, their father’s homemade Christmas cookies, the soaking smell of rice paddies, poetry, regret, the weight of their muscles, the heat and tension of no parades, no welcome, no cheer. They carry this idea that they could die and that would be alright, or lonely, but not heartbreaking.
“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing–these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects, that was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.”
I think just the title story is a testament to Tim O’Brien’s writing, but I’m not sure I can say I’m a real reader if I hadn’t read the entire book. I’m not sure I could say I even had a glimmer of war knowledge if I hadn’t read the entire book. Here I am teaching my students about WWII and I know nothing about the feelings of men in a foreign country lying together in the squeezed darkness, hearing music that doesn’t mellow, but explodes.
I don’t think I’m getting at the heart of this.
This was one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’m tired, I was on vacation, I was riding bikes along the restored shore of Bald Head Island. Lounging in the sun after riding a golf cart 16 miles per hour down a hill. There were chapels, and sunrise services, old men in penny loafers with golf bags slung over their shoulder and all I wanted to do was open the next page of The Things They Carried and walk into the sludge of Vietnam with Tim O’Brien. I wanted to smell like shit, but feel it. Sometimes in a world where everything is okay and beautiful, you need to read horror and misunderstanding to be able to feel it. Don’t people always say, no one would like to read a happy story? If all you’re living is a happy story, you’re doing it wrong.
I think this book touches the reader at the most tender moments. At one point, a baby buffalo is brutally killed. It’s strange how much those three paragraphs brought to life Vietnam for me. I tell my students all the time about desensitization and effects of imprisonment, but this really sealed that for me. Vietnam was a type of prison for these men. Not only are the almost-memories, in this book extraordinarily well-written, but the way it’s told is phenomenal. At one point, there are notes about the soldier in one of the stories. I was shocked at how true and not true the story was all at once. Tim O’Brien says he told the story that way because the lie impacts more than the truth. This is the truth, but it’s slant. Tell the truth, tell it slant. I heard that so many times in writing workshops. This is both a war story and a love story, but it’s also stories about how to write stories.
You can tell a true war story if you just keep telling it.
Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again.
It’s hard to believe in a story that doesn’t place you at the heart of the matter. I cried over Kiowa, over his sunken boot and mud face. I cried over Ted Lavender over and over because he kept appearing and then disappearing. He kept dying, it kept repeating itself and blowing over until it was time for that memory to resurface. The way this book is told is the way we remember. I know my grandfather is dead, but I only think about it sometimes. It resurfaces, it hurts the same every time, a thump of hurt just below my ribs in my not-quite stomach, a cramp of hurt.
I understand why people write stories because of this book. It isn’t because they have this deep need to write, it’s to write that girl they knew in fourth grade, but still cover her up at the same time. You know, the writer, that she’s that girl in fourth grade with one crooked tooth and a monstrous yell when she ran across the bridge of the playground, but to your reader, she’s Karen, many years later, still crooked tooth, a bit of a snaggle at this point, and the yell is at her husband in the folds of their home together. This is why people write, we can hide ourselves in the pages, but tell the truth. We can be our whole selves in the halves of it. Tim O’Brien gets this, Tim O’Brien writes for the girls on vacation, the girls with chubby thighs and bike rides, the girls in high school who whisper their feelings into their pillows and dance when they get home before the rest of their family. Just because their war stories, doesn’t mean they’re not our stories.
How does a girl in North Carolina cry over a passage written about a group of men with shells in their pockets and grenade tips in their teeth? I’m not even a girl who typically reads the true grit of war story. I’m a girl who reads about everything surrounding a war. Women crying into their vanities, girls not allowed to go to school for fear of gun blasts, couples in hiding, farmers giving their rotting vegetables to passerby’s, and every store is out of grocery, there is no milk, rations come in boxes. Folded inside a small envelope is everything your family is able to eat that month, four mouths to feed and one tugging at your skirt, dirt under his fingernails, bare-feet in the burnt grass. This is the war I know, everyone else’s imagination of war. Not the actual war. Not men in fatigues and helmets. Not grime, or wounds, or how it takes three packages and nine men to deliver a Kellogg’s box to the front. Not how killing a baby buffalo creates puffs of gun smoke that crack the ground open and lets it fester.