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Tim O'brien Biography

Nationality: American. Born: William Timothy O'Brien in Austin, Minnesota, 1946. Education: Macalaster College, St. Paul, Minnesota, B.A. in political science (summa cum laude) 1968; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970-76. Military Service: Served in the United States Army during the Vietnam war; discharged wounded 1970: Purple Heart. Career: Reporter, Washington Post, 1971-74. Awards: National Book award, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts award; Bread Loaf Writers Conference award; Heartland Award, 1990; Melcher Book Award, 1991. L.H.D., Miami University (Ohio), 1990. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.



Northern Lights. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Calder andBoyars, 1975.

Going after Cacciato. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Cape, 1978.

The Nuclear Age. Portland, Oregon, Press 22, 1981; London, Collins, 1986.

In the Lake of the Woods. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Tomcat in Love. New York, Broadway Books, 1998.

Short Stories

The Things They Carried. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Collins, 1990.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Keeping Watch by Night," in Redbook (New York), December1976.

"Night March," in Prize Stories of 1976, edited by William Abrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1976.

"Fisherman," in Esquire (New York), October 1977.

"Calling Home," in Redbook (New York), December 1977.

"Speaking of Courage," in Prize Stories of 1978, edited by WilliamAbrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1978.

"Civil Defense," in Esquire (New York), August 1980.

"The Ghost Soldiers," in Prize Stories of 1982, edited by WilliamAbrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1982.

"Quantum Jumps," in The Pushcart Prize 10, edited by Bill Henderson. Wainscott, New York, Pushcart Press, 1985.

"Underground Tests," in The Esquire Fiction Reader 2, edited byRust Hills and Tom Jenks. Green Harbor, Massachusetts, Wampeter Press, 1986.

"The Lives of the Dead," in Esquire (New York), January 1989.

"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," in Esquire (New York), July1989.

"In the Field," in Gentlemen's Quarterly (New York), December1989.

"Enemies and Friends," in Harper's (New York), March 1990.

"Field Trip," in McCall's (New York), August 1990.

"Speaking of Courage," in The Other Side of Heaven: Post-War Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers, edited by Wayne Karling. Williamatic, Connecticut, Curbstone Press, 1995.


If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (memoirs).New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Calder and Boyars, 1973; revised edition, Delacorte Press, 1979.

Speaking of Courage. Santa Barbara, California, Neville, 1980.


Critical Studies:

"Imagining the Real: The Fiction of Tim O'Brien" by Daniel L. Zins, in Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), June 1986; "Tim O'Brien's Myth of Courage" by Milton J. Bates, in Critique (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1987; Understanding Tim O'Brien by Steven Kaplan, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1994; Tim O'Brien by Tobey C. Herzog, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1997.

* * *

Looking back, it almost seems as if, during the 1970s and 1980s, in order to have a book acclaimed as one of the best pieces of writing to emerge from the Vietnam War, all an author needed to do was get it published. Whatever the reason for the hype, some highly commendable work was produced as a result of America's military misadventures in southeast Asia. Few writers contribute more than once to the list though, and few have really been able to forge much headway beyond their first couple of books. Tim O'Brien is the exception.

O'Brien's debut, If I Die in a Combat Zone, a collection of newspaper and magazine journalism supplemented by other articles, would have been enough to ensure him a lasting reputation as a gritty and reliable witness to some of the worst stupidity of the war in Vietnam. Anecdotal and sometimes jarring in its juxtaposition of Socratic dialogue and personal meditation, If I Die in a Combat Zone is a clear-sighted and unsensationalist account of one young enlistee's fears and aspirations. In no way does it prepare us for Going after Cacciato, O'Brien's intense, impressionistic, and impassioned fictionalization of the experiences of ordinary combat personnel in Vietnam. Here O'Brien's narrative stretches across Asia and Europe as the remaining members of a platoon hunt a deserter. Gradually it becomes evident that this epic chase is a graft of fantasy onto fact—Paul Berlin, the central character, and his colleagues follow their prey no further than a grassy knoll not far from their departure point. The subsequent developments are all the products of an imagination feverishly creating alternative scenarios to the horrors of a foot-soldier's daily existence. Reality becomes malleable as O'Brien weaves memorable sections of recalled events—sentry duty, ambush, patrol, and death—into the path of Cacciato's flight. Imagination is the metaphor for and means of survival—a theme that unites O'Brien's work.

Northern Lights brings together two brothers—one returned from Vietnam, the other homebound—and pitches them into a battle for life in the untamed Minnesotan Arrowhead country after a skiing trip goes disastrously wrong. In a not unexpected role reversal, Harvey, who has proved his manhood in battle, becomes utterly dependent upon Paul, who has "flown a desk" for the duration. O'Brien's portrayals of an impersonal but fiercely hostile winter wilderness and the oppressive atmosphere of a dying small town are vivid and impressive. Northern Lights also introduces us, somewhat ominously, to a bomb shelter dug by Harvey.

O'Brien's third novel, The Nuclear Age, draws that shelter out of the background and deposits it in a dominant position, in the middle (and beginning and end) of the plot. William Cowling, the narrator of this tale of paranoia and atrophied passion, has led a life determined by dread—the same interminable panic felt by O'Brien in Vietnam but modified into the more universal concept of the all-consuming terror of nuclear Armageddon. As a child he constructed a refuge in his basement out of a ping-pong table, surrounding it at one point with pencils purloined from school, in the belief that radiation from a nuclear explosion would not penetrate the "lead." At college, Cowling's personal antibomb protests are mistaken for the actions of a putative politician, and he is soon embroiled in campus revolt, orchestrated by Sarah, the childhood sweetheart he never had. The primary motive of the hero is, however, self-preservation: "She was out to change the world, I was out to survive it." As Cowling grows out of love with Sarah, so his concern with his imminent obliteration becomes more profound, and we join him, late at night, in his garden, obeying the "voice" of a hole that is telling him to dig or perish.

The Things They Carried, more short story cycle than novel, reads so much like a memoir that the author has to emphasize, in a subtitle and prefatory note, that what follows is "a work of fiction." The intensely autobiographical tone of the stories is underscored by the presence of a first person narrator named Tim O'Brien. The stories that follow all attempt to come to terms with the narrator's Vietnam experience and frequently try to account for the purpose of telling or writing stories. "How to Tell a True War Story" begins with the assertion, "This is true" and, like many of the other stories in the collection, goes on to question what truth is. Truth and reality are even fuzzier in Vietnam than elsewhere, and examining how experience is converted into meaning matters more than trying to figure out what is real. Despite the narrator's playing with the notion of truth in stories, the reader comes away from these stories with a sense of the awful truth that was Vietnam, though we share the frustrations of the various storytellers, who will never quite be able to communicate their experience.

This frustration becomes the theme of O'Brien's next novel, In the Lake of the Woods, the story of John Wade, who goes into exile after losing a primary election for U.S. senate, and his wife Kathy, who disappears while they are in exile. The novel comprises various testimonies of people who knew John, the local authorities who suspect foul play, neighbors who try to comfort John after the disappearance, and other "evidence" in the form of documents chronicling Wade's life. Bringing it all together is a narrator who is self-conscious about his role as a writer, and his inability to "know" anything beyond direct personal experience. "Evidence is not truth," he tells us in a footnote, "and if you require solutions, you will have to look beyond these pages." Like the rest of O'Brien's work, this novel takes on Vietnam, yet more obliquely; Wade had been involved in the My Lai incident, and his experience there becomes part of the evidence in his case. The connection is clear enough: despite all of our various attempts to make sense of the disturbing side of human existence, our capacity to understand is limited. O'Brien has certainly not left the war behind, but he has gotten beyond the war itself and begun to delve into its long-term implications. He remains the most compelling voice to emerge from the Vietnam war, but he is also developing into a master of storytelling who is aware of his craft and of the necessity for its continuation.

Ian McMechan,

updated by D. Quentin Miller

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