‘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