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Will the Real Tim O’Brien Please Stand Up

By: Joe Peacock


TimOn his title page of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien identifies these linked stories as “a work of fiction.”  Had he not, readers could certainly fall into the mistaken impression that this work is indeed a memoir.  It would be a natural mistake for any reader to make.  After all, a PFC by the name of Tim O’Brien is the narrator of these stories, and the voice of narrator O’Brien sounds exactly like the voice of author O’Brien to this reader.  Anyone familiar with the life of the writer will attest to these similarities.  For starters, both the author and the narrator were in Quang Ngai Province in Vietnam at the same time (1969-1970); both were drafted after graduating summa cum laude from college, where they had protested against the war; both considered fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft; and each proclaimed that the reason he went to Vietnam was that he was a coward.

            One problem for the reader of this work, then, concerns the question of fact versus fiction.  What is true and what is not true?  At times the question seems unanswerable, and I simply read these stories the way I read all fiction, which is to say, with faith.  Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, for example, is an animate individual who lives in my imagination and memory as clearly as my grandmother.  Of course I know he is a fictional creation, just as narrator Nick Carraway is, and just as narrator Tim O’Brien is in The Things They Carried.  But just a moment.  Is narrator O’Brien simply a creation of the literary imagination?  It seems impossible.

            In the story “Good Form,” the narrator opens this way: “I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier” (179).  His next paragraph, however, puts forth this disclaimer: “Almost everything else [besides his age, occupation, and setting of the story] is invented.” Then the narrator, who sounds very much like author O’Brien, continues by telling about a man who died on a trail near a small village in Vietnam.  The narrator says he did not kill the man, but that he feels guilty because he was present.  He blames himself for the man’s death, and he invites further confusion by stating that the story of his guilt over the man’s death is made up.  Finally he tells us, “I want you to feel what I felt.  I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth” (179).  Does this sound like a narrator of a story, or an author?  Doesn’t a narrator tell us the story which he observes?  Doesn’t an author contemplate philosophical questions dealing with “story-truth” and “happening-truth” in literature?

            At this point, then, the ideas in “Good Form” seem to be coming straight from the mind of the author, not the narrator.  This impression is only heightened in the next two paragraphs, where the narrator/author describes the difference between his happening-truth experience—Is the narrator in a work of fiction capable of having a happening-truth experience?—and his story-truth experience.  O’Brien tells us that his happening-truth was that when he was a soldier he saw many young men die.  The dead had real faces, but being young then, he was afraid to look.  Now, more than twenty years later, he’s left with “faceless responsibility and faceless grief” (180).  Next, O’Brien gives us his story-truth based on the happening-truth: “He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty.  He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe.  His jaw was in his throat.  His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole.  I killed him” (180).

            Now it begins to come together, to make some sense.  But the reader seems correct in assuming that the two O’Briens, narrator and author, sometimes coalesce into one.  The conundrum continues, however, when the two-page story ends this way: “‘Daddy, tell the truth,’ Kathleen [narrator O’Brien’s ten-year-old daughter, as we discover in the following story] can say, ‘did you ever kill anybody?’  And I can say, honestly, ‘Of course not.’

Or I can say, honestly, ‘Yes’” (180).

            The obvious question at this point seems to be this: Does writer O’Brien actually have a daughter who joined him on a trip to Vietnam, as narrator O’Brien’s daughter does in the follow-up story, “Field Trip”?  On my first read of this work, I would have guessed that he does, and that this was another point where happening-truth and story-truth became one and the same. However, after reading O’Brien’s confessional purge, “The Vietnam in Me,” published in The New York Times Magazine in 1994, I know that author Tim O’Brien does not have a daughter.  He did go back to Vietnam in ’94, but he took his twenty-something girlfriend with him.  Apparently, author O’Brien decided he could better make the reader feel what he felt on that trip by substituting a fictional daughter for his very young love interest, Kate, who would have been, at best, a distraction in the story, and at worst, an irrelevance.  O’Brien’s long article in the Times includes a number of references to this young lady, and, though touching from time to time, I often found myself distracted, even irritated, by her presence.  The author’s instincts were right; the young Kate would not have worked for the story, even though she was the happening-truth.  The story-truth is truer. 

            I am not the only reader fooled by the events in “Field Trip.”  A writer acquaintance told me of witnessing an encounter between O’Brien and a friend shortly after the publication of The Things They Carried.  Regarding the story “Field Trip, the friend says something like, “Great stuff, Tim.  But, my God, I didn’t even realize you have a daughter.”  O’Brien, of course, responds, “I don’t.”

            There is only one story in this entire work that I would classify as unrealistic and aver with a fair amount of certainty that the events in the story did not actually happen as described: its title, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.”  In this piece Rat Kiley, a soldier in narrator O’Brien’s unit, tells the tale of Mark Fossie, a pal from his first assignment in the mountains near Chu Lai.  Fossie thinks about, discusses, and then actually invites his girlfriend to visit him at base camp.  A month later, incredibly, she appears, flying in on a supply helicopter.  Mary Anne is a seventeen-year-old graduate of Cleveland Heights High School and she’s very sweet on Fossie.  At this point the narrator seems ready for the reader’s skepticism, for he has one of the soldiers listening to Kiley’s tale begin to doubt the veracity of the story. O’Brien’s buddy Sanders says, “It can’t happen.   . . . I mean, you just can’t import your own personal poontang” (90).

            Of course you can’t.  Totally implausible.  Yet this story is one of my favorites.  It tells how Mary Anne slowly, subtly gets inhaled into the fiber of the Vietnam experience.  At first she rambles on about how much she loves the quaintness of the nearby village with its “thatched roofs and naked children, the wonderful simplicity of village life” (96).  Before long, however, she puts her makeup case away and begins to wear fatigues.  She and Fossie have uncomfortable tiffs, and Fossie wonders what is happening.  Pretty soon Mary Anne disappears.  Fossie is sure she is shacking up with another soldier in his unit, but an inspection proves him wrong.  At that point he and his buddies finally discover the truth: Mary Anne is going out on ambush missions with a group of Green Berets stationed at the edge of the camp.  After Fossie confronts her, Mary Anne tries to comply with his wishes, but she is hooked on the opium that is Vietnam.  A few days later she disappears for three weeks before returning with the Greenies.  Now one of them, she accompanies them to their compound.  When Fossie desperately crashes into the compound late that night, he confronts a young woman he doesn’t know.  Mary Anne’s eyes are flat and indifferent.  And there is her jewelry:

At the girl’s throat was a necklace of human tongues.  Elongated and narrow, like

pieces of blackened leather, the tongues were threaded along a length of copper

wire, one overlapping the next, the tips curled upward as if caught in a final shrill

syllable. (110-111)

            What does Mary Anne say to this young man who had proposed to her only a month before?  “Sometimes I want to eat this place . . .  and have it there inside me.  When I’m out there at night . . .  I can feel my blood moving . . .  it’s like I’m full of electricity . . .  on fire almost . . .  but it doesn’t matter because I know exactly who I am” (111).

            Why has author O’Brien decided to include this most unrealistic story in the middle of a book full of totally lifelike stories that sound and feel, smell and look and taste real?  Is it possible that he felt some readers might be at least a bit inured to stories describing young men at war?  Stephen Crane was one of the first Americans to tell the loss-of-innocence war story with The Red Badge of Courage in 1895.  Ernest Hemingway continued the tradition with some of the stories in his In Our Time, especially “Big Two-Hearted River” in 1925 and A Farewell to Arms in 1929.  Erich Maria Remarque published what some critics call the quintessential war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, in that same year of 1929.  In Henry Fleming, Nick Adams, Frederic Henry, and Paul Baumer, we see idealistic young patriots who step into the inferno of war and come out of it—if indeed they are able to emerge at all—with new insights and new emptiness.  They are changed men, “une generation perdue,” as Gertrude Stein called them in the 1920s.  And this is true for O’Brien’s characters, too: Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa, not to mention that newly drafted and incredibly innocent Tim O’Brien, the narrator of these stories.

            Perhaps author O’Brien decided that one way to make his reader feel the same way he felt about Vietnam was to go over the edge of reality.  Change the naïve, innocent young man to a naïve, innocent young woman.  The ploy works brilliantly.  Mary Anne, in her white culottes and pink pullover sweater, is the apotheosis of innocence.  The effect is devastating.  Perhaps considering a line from E. E. Cummings, author O’Brien might be asking the reader a two-fold question: How do you like your blue-eyed girl, Mister Death?  Does this get your attention?

            Any discussion of The Things They Carried must look at another one of its most poignant stories, “On the Rainy River,” which opens with narrator O’Brien telling us that this is a tale he has never told anyone before because it’s so embarrassing.  “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 naïve, but even so the American war in Vietnam seemed to me wrong” (40).  No one understood the war, he states, no one seemed to really know what happened to the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, and people on the streets of America were arguing about the wisdom of our involvement.  So, the narrator says, sometime during the middle of July “I began thinking seriously about Canada . . .   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” (44).  Voices rage in his head for a week but he cannot act—a modern Hamlet in yet another of life’s morality plays.  One morning while working at the meat-packing company, O’Brien feels “something break open in my chest” (46).  He goes home, leaves his parents a note, jumps in his car and heads north, ending up in the farthest reaches of Minnesota, just south of Canada, which lies at the north shore of the Rainy River.  He stops at the Tip Top Lodge, a dilapidated fishing camp run by eighty-one-year old Elroy Berdahl, who puts O’Brien in one of the cabins and tells him that dinner is served at five-thirty.

            The old man—smart, crotchety, a wizard at Scrabble—says very little over the next week.  The narrator tells us, “What I remember more than any thing is the man’s willful, almost ferocious silence.  In all that time together, all those hours, he never asked the obvious questions: Why was I there?  Why alone?  Why so preoccupied?” (49). O’Brien is pondering his present and his future, obviously, but he cannot decide what to do.

            On his last full day at the Tip Top, O’Brien goes fishing with Elroy out on the Rainy River.  While on the river Tim eyes the northern shore: Canada, and safety, but more importantly, freedom from serving in a war that he hates, that he has spoken out against, that he considers immoral.  Elroy, not saying a word, steers the boat close to the shore and lets the motor die.  He flicks out his artificial lure and reels it in, over and over, as O’Brien tries to decide what to do.  The narrator tells us, “I tried to will myself overboard.  I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, Now” (59).  He is searching for his principles, his values, his courage.  Having protested against the war while in college, he now, with his draft papers in his pocket, does not know if he can abandon his past life and the unspoken but very real expectations of family and friends:

                        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!  Pussy!  I felt myself blush . . .   And so I sat in the bow of the

                        boat and cried. (59)

            It’s a story that will make readers weep.  And whether or not Tim O’Brien the writer ever sat in an aluminum boat near the north shore of the Rainy River in Minnesota in 1968 becomes irrelevant, for this is the story of the confusion and sorrows and fears of Tim O’Brien the character, and this story-truth allows us to experience the inescapable heaviness of this thing that both O’Briens carried with them to Vietnam and back home again.  It’s the stuff of the truest truth in literature.






Works Cited

O’Brien, Tim.  The Things They Carried.  New York: Broadway Books, 1990.

____.  “The Vietnam in Me.”  2 Oct. 1994.  The New York Times Magazine ON THE WEB.  1 Mar.  




  1. I have loved Tim ‘O’Brien’s work since I read “The Things they Carried”. Understanding why O’Brien writes as a first-person narrator of his Vietnam chronicles is difficult for me since I write nearly completely in the third person. But, since I have many things in common with him, like being a veteran, being a witness to barbarity, and being a writer, I can understand his “personal fiction”. To create a situation wholly uninformed of your own experience is impossible whether you write in first-person narration or third-person omniscience. I too choose to write in informed lies and fabrications to find that real truth–the truth of fiction.

  2. I ddo consider all the ideas you’ve presented on your post.
    They are really convincing and can definitely
    work. Nonetheless, the posts are very brief
    for starters. Could you please prolong them a little from next time?
    Thanks for the post.

  3. I was in Chu Lai with the Marines from June ‘66 to July ‘67 and recognized “The Things They Carried” as BS immediately yet also felt certain O’Brien had been there and must have had a rough tour as an Army grunt, perhaps coming home a little crazy. Every single chapter had me groaning and I was actually pissed off at my son’s friend who asked me to read the book and give my opinion. But the little speech at the college above cleared it up for me with the long-winded explanation verifying that next to nothing in the book is true. I knew that from the get-go.
    Nonetheless, he’s a great wordsmith and has made a lot of money with his Viet Nam fiction but I wouldn’t have read a page had I known. I do thank him for his service but the book is a soap opera. The real Chu Lai was known as “Dodge City” in ‘67 because of all the Marines getting gunned down by other Marines. The grunts in the boonies turned down R&R on the Chu Lai beach on the South China Sea as being too dangerous. It was crazy there.
    And THAT is the truth!

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