In the novels of Tim O'Brien,
all roads lead back to the
By Richard von Busack
John Wade, a senatorial candidate, has just lost an election by a huge margin. His political career is over. To recuperate from the disappointment, Wade and his wife, Kathy, retreat to a cabin by the side of Minnesota's Lake of the Woods, a vast, trackless body of water that stretches deep into the Canadian wilderness. Soon after their arrival, Kathy turns up missing, possibly strayed, possibly murdered.
Tim O'Brien reads from his works Thursday (Oct. 19) at 7:30pm at the Music Concert Hall, San Jose State University, as part of the Center for Literary Arts Major Authors Series. He also participates in a public discussion Friday (Oct. 20) at 12:30pm in the Umunhum Room, SJSU Student Union. Free. (408/924-1378)
The hunt for her is conducted during the course of Tim O'Brien's remarkable 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods (just released in paperback by Penguin). At the same time, Wade's own character is searched for by a nameless biographer seeking answers to the mystery.
One answer lies in the matter that undid Wade, the truth about his participation in the massacre at My Lai. The election was lost because of Wade's coverup; his wife, too, may be lost, in every sense of the word "lost," because of Wade's inability to reveal himself even to himself. Indeed, Wade was an amateur magician, nicknamed "Sorcerer" in Vietnam, where he was a soldier--and where, for really the only time in his life, he was at home.
The geographic and psychic connection to Vietnam is an especially crucial one for O'Brien, author of the best and most evocative American novel about the Vietnam War, 1979's Going After Cacciato. Vietnam was, O'Brien says, "a place with secret trap-doors and tunnels and underground chambers populated by various spooks and goblins, a place where magic was everyone's hobby and where elaborate props were always on hand--exploding boxes and secret chambers and numerous devices of levitation--you could fly here, you could make other people fly."
But Wade's real trick, illuminated by In the Lake of the Woods' lethal metaphor, is mirrored in some recent political magic: making the lessons of Vietnam vanish; levitating the weight of what we learned, and hiding it, putting it somewhere in the nether world behind us. O'Brien, an ex-soldier and ex-reporter, knows more than most about how this vanishing act works, and how Vietnam was like, and unlike, other wars.
"I used to get into a rage over America not wanting to look over its own history," O'Brien tells me. "In my old age, I find it more depressing than infuriating I supposed America's like any other country, wanting to pat itself on the back and look forward, instead of acknowledging its history and learning from it."
Lies and My Lai
In preparation for In the Lake of the Woods, O'Brien did substantial research to recreate the story of the Song My massacre of March 16, 1968, in a remote farming village also known as My Lai. There, a number (175-500 is the range) of unarmed old men, women and infants were slaughtered. "When writing a novel, I usually just use my imagination. In this case, I did a substantial amount of reading, on the lives of politicians and their wives, and on My Lai itself."
So the author had the peculiar experience of reading not only the official account of Lt. William Calley's command at the massacre but also the official accounts of his own tour of duty in the national military archives. "The reports," O'Brien says, "are a mixture of utter falsehood and cold-blooded truth-telling, in this weird military lingo that doesn't in any way capture the experience. They're horrible statistics, like an insurance actuarial report. There's an incredible disjunction between my memory of events, the vivid colors and sounds, and these after-action reports."
The Peers Commission report on My Lai represents the other side of the Army reports of body counts and engagements--it's the human, and not the institutional, voice. Says O'Brien, "It's as if you're sitting in a room with the soldiers; their testimony is a mixture of self-hatred, horror, shame and self-justification. They're saying, 'What did I do? How could I have done it? What was I feeling?' "
Yet Rusty Calley is still at large, selling jewelry in Columbus, Ga. "I don't know how he lives," O'Brien says. "It must be through self-delusion, like an ostrich hiding his head. I read his ghost-written autobiography. Partially it was justification: 'They were all V.C.; we lost a lot of guys.' It was a logical jump from there to 'Let's kill babies.' How he pulls this off emotionally, I have no idea."
O'Brien didn't interview the troops who were at My Lai for his book, though. "I went out of my way to avoid meeting these men. I didn't have the stomach for it, to sit with these guys and listen to their excuses and rationalizations. I'd read them all, and I had enough of my own experience to judge what they went through. My unit went through the same country, had the same casualties, and we couldn't find the enemy either, but we never crossed that moral line."
From War to War
Another prominent theme running through all of O'Brien's work on Vietnam (including his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone) is the war's links to other wars. In this, there's a deceptive stylistic similarity to our American laureate of battle, Ernest Hemingway. O'Brien's writing can be as hard and concise as Hemingway's, as in the description of the North Woods at the opening of In the Lake of the Woods.
The echoing wasn't deliberate, O'Brien says. "It's more of a similar background than a literary influence. Minnesota's second nature to me, from being a Boy Scout and a YMCA Indian Guide there. And we had similar experiences as newspaper writers and covering war. I'm less certain about courage than he is, a little more tentative, and a lot more full of ambiguity. We begin in the same general terrain, but then Hemingway goes one way into the forest, and I go another."
O'Brien considers Michael Herr's Dispatches and Phil Caputo's A Rumor of War the best nonfiction accounts of what it was like during the Vietnam War. "I think they'll be read 300 years from now. Both capture the moral ambiguities, the uncertainties, the fog." (Anyone who read Dispatches, for example, can't forget Herr's simple description of hogs rooting napalmed cadavers: "A memorable sight, pigs eating roast people.")
It wasn't until after he'd written Going After Cacciato that O'Brien read Catch-22, Joseph Heller's novel about the surreal qualities of all wars. O'Brien says he loves the book. "I didn't read it until late '70s. I didn't find war very funny, at that point."
"Of course, there have been comparisons between Catch-22 and Going After Cacciato," he says, "especially in Yossarian's attempts to get to Sweden. Running from battle is a constant in stories of war. In any kind of hideous thing like that, your instincts to tell you to run; it's one of those E=MC2 things, a constant."
Going After Cacciato is all about running away, as a squad of American soldiers, lead by Paul Berlin, searches for the "dumb as milk" deserter of the title (Cacciato is Italian for "the hunted one"), who has taken it into his head to escape the Vietnam War by walking 8,600 statute miles to Paris.
In an increasingly fantastic narrative, the squad pursues Cacciato all the way from Laos to the Parisian market of Les Halles, driving across Asia Minor in a stolen Chevy Impala, ahead of the Shah's police; along the way, they fall in love with foreign girls and sit down for a dinner with an urbane Viet Cong officer inside the tunnels. All of this, naturally, takes place in between the realities of war the protagonist Berlin is trying to escape his own way--in his dreams.
Going After Cacciato prefigures the supernatural element found in "Sorcerer" Wade's view of the war in In the Lake of the Woods. In the earlier book, Berlin views the hedgerows in the countryside he patrols, "like walls in old mansions: secret panels and trap-doors and portraits with moving eyes. That was the feeling the hedges always gave him, just a feeling."
"Vietnam was like any war," O'Brien says, "full of accidents, absurdity, the despair that comes from looking death in the face every day. The irrationality of war has been recorded back to Homer, but Vietnam was complicated by the unique aspect, the absence of front lines. There was no front and no back. The enemy was above you in trees and beneath you in tunnels.
"The absence of virtues and moral rectitudes were bad. In earlier wars, at least there was a sense on being on the right side. ... There was a purposelessness, an aimlessness: no enemy to aim at. There was also a spiritual aimlessness. You'd search a village. Someone might die, and someone might not. A week later, you'd search the same village, someone might die and someone might not, again. It gave a feeling of going in circles and not accomplishing anything. ... So Vietnam was a mixture of things common to warfare and things that were unique."
The important and beautifully realized In The Lake of the Woods isn't a polemic. The blame for the historical vanishing act isn't placed completely on politicians, and O'Brien includes a mostly compassionate portrayal of Wade's aggressive, fat and socially awkward campaign manager--who for all his gaucheries is trying to change a seemingly hopeless system the way it's supposed to be changed.
O'Brien also takes the long historical view, noting the parallels between Vietnam and other, earlier American wars, particularly the campaigns against Native Americans. O'Brien, for instance, cites Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star, with its harrowing description of the battle of the Little Big Horn, a battle that was a harbinger of what was to happen at the ditch in My Lai. What may be unique to Vietnam is the rapidity in which its lessons have been swept up and concealed: the allegory of the missing body in In the Lake of the Woods is both subtle and clear. However understandable, the public efforts to treat Vietnam as an aberration of the past makes us all accessories after the fact.
From the Oct. 19-25, 1995 issue of Metro
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