‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien

Taken as a pair, this collection of shorts and O’Brien’s raw-as-fuck memoir If I Die In A Combat Zone (1973) are some of the best and most important literature about war ever written for me. These stories are meta-fictional to the nth degree; he says they are fictional and yet dedicates the book to some of the characters in them, for example. The title story is a masterpiece, much of which is given over to listing the equipment that the grunts had to lug around Vietnam with them, almost always specifying how much each item weighs. Added to the catalogue of equipment is a list of metaphysical baggage: “He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.” A list of weapons blends the physical and the metaphysical, ending with “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” Death is ever-present and happens suddenly, without fanfare.

….just boom, then down – not like in the movies where the dead guys rolls around and does fancy spins and goes ass over teakettle – not like that, Kiowa said, the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom. Down. Nothing else.

It’s nothing more than a simple fact of life, brushed aside with the cynicism and black humour that the men use to keep themselves sane. If you’ve never read him before I’d urge you to seek this out – he’s a phenomenally gifted writer and you can only marvel at the fortitude of the man to endure what he did and be able to write about it so well in the aftermath. His surreal, National Book Award-winning Vietnam novel Going After Cacciato is well worth tracking down too. An honourable mention is due here to Bosnian writer Faruk ŠehićI’d have loved to include something from his brilliant collection about the Balkan wars of the 90s, Under Pressure, but I figured one war story would be enough, and it had to be this one.

In The Things They Carried, Houghton Mifflin, 1990

‘On The Rainy River’ by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried is both true and entirely fictional. After being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War, ‘On The Rainy River’ tells the imagined story of the twenty-one-year-old O’Brien fleeing to the Canadian border and staying at a dilapidated lodge for six days where he agonises over whether or not he should avoid the draft by crossing the Rainy River which separates Minnesota from Canada. His host is the owner of the lodge, an old man named Elroy Berdahl, who while understanding the narrator’s predicament remains steadfastly silent on the matter, making no attempt to sway his decision either way. O’Brien writes about Elroy and the narrator’s dilemma: “…, the man understood that words were insufficient. The problem had gone beyond discussion.” I won’t go as far as to reveal what he finally decides to do—though you might guess—but what I will say is that O’Brien’s account of the inner turmoil experienced by the narrator as he finally arrives at his decision is among the most authentic and gut-wrenching writing I have ever read. Indeed, I would count The Things They Carried as not only the best war literature I’ve encountered, but also place it high among the finest works of literature created by any author.

First published in Playboy, January 1990Collected in The Things They Carried, Collins 1990

‘What Went Wrong?’ by Tim O’Brien

This story, which I first read in O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, edited by Laura Furman, later became a chapter in O’Brien’s uneven late novel July, July. It is among the most elegant very short stories I’ve ever read. It concerns a group of friends and their preoccupation with a couple among them who married, divorced, and then continued to love each other forever. It is a story in part about the impossibility of knowing the people who come in and out of our lives, and the wonder and mystery that attaches to trying.

First published in Esquire, 2002. Collected in July, July, Houghton Mifflin, 2002/Flamingo, 2003

‘Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong’ by Tim O’Brien

In her ‘white culottes and sexy pink sweater’, seventeen-year-old blonde Mary Anne is smuggled into Vietnam by her medic boyfriend Mark Fossie. They spend weeks sleeping and sunbathing together while the other GIs stationed there go green with envy. But Mary Anne is curious. She visits the local village and asks about weapons and the war. She learns to disassemble an M-16. She cuts her fingernails and her hair, wrapping it in a dark green bandana. She starts fraternising with the squad of six Green Berets also stationed there. Mark gets nervous and suggests it’s time for her to return to Cleveland, but she refuses and, after a showdown, Mary Anne disappears the next morning with the Green Berets. It’s three weeks before she returns and Mark knows by the dead look in her eyes that she is lost to the jungle. In the end, Mary Anne goes out on nighttime raids that even the Green Berets balk at. Eventually, she never comes back at all, but some swear they have seen her ‘sliding through the shadows … wearing a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill.’

In The Things They Carried, Broadway Books, 1990