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Tim O'Brien:
Pain, Love, & Growth

(From Super Author Residency: March 21, 22, and 23, 1996 )

by John P. Lavelle 

Tim O'Brien is a magical writer from the Midwest. His roots are in rural Minnesota. He was born in Austin, Minnesota and raised in Worthington, Minnesota. In 1968, he graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul. He served in Vietnam as an infantry soldier from 1969 to 1970. He has included aspects of the conflict in his writing. O'Brien deals with the conflict though a coping mechanism, just as all human beings deal with trauma. He creates a livable reality.

On occasion, O'Brien goes beyond reality by using his great gift of imagination. In his writing we learn that war was a possibility for him just as much as peace was. Bravery and valor were possibilities as much as cowardice and acts of reprehensible evil. Vietnam held all of these possibilities as much as all life holds all of these possibilities. War is only one of the various possibilities that life affords us. Life is choice. We choose from the possibilities. We live with the results of those choices. The results are tangible. They are a reality. How we cope with those realities is a further choice.

Tim O'Brien copes by telling stories. When he visited the Quad City Area in March he told stories that caused people to listen. O'Brien used powerful readings from his works to captivate the various audiences that had the good fortune to attend the lecture and reading series that were held for three consecutive days. His simple and comfortable presence is not indicative of the power that is present during his readings. It is evident immediately that he is a story teller. His prose is indicative of the story teller. His use of the narrative voice is extremely dramatic. His imagination is the "magic" he uses to put the audience under his spell.

O'Brien started his super author residency at Teikyo Marycrest College were he spoke to a large group of students and faculty and members of the community about the Vietnam experience. He was joined by a panel from the school that had also experienced Vietnam in diverse ways. His reading was combined with the viewing of a video tape that was produced locally and dealt with the war in Vietnam. He signed books and spoke at length to all those that approached him. He is quite approachable.

The second stop for Tim O'Brien was at Scott Community College in Bettendorf, where he wore a Bettendorf High School baseball cap. He collects hats from his travels, and added a local hat to that collection. This was a move that further endeared him to the audience. He read from his short story "Faith" which recently was published in The New Yorker and is a selection from his current work in progress novel. He spoke of the use of self in fiction and got laughs when he said that the stories were all lies. He comes from Minnesota where people fish. He says that the twelve pound walleye that was caught often becomes fifteen pounds and soon it becomes a marlin.

The story adds to life, it becomes enlarged. The stories from self aren't always good stories so the author embellishes them. He gives the example of "On the Rainy River" a chapter from his novel The Things They Carried the character must make a decision about going to fight in a war he doesn't believe in or running away to Canada. He travels to the Rainy River area in northern Minnesota. O'Brien says he has never been in that area of the state. He really spent the summer of 1968 golfing and worrying. That is not a good story though and so he embellishes it.

He again stayed to autograph books and to speak to those people that approached him after his speech. The evening presentation was at the Rock Island Public Library and was attended by several Vietnam veterans along with other members of the local community. O'Brien spoke of his youth in Worthington and going to the Saturday afternoon movies and seeing John Wayne and other stars win the wars of our fathers. He talked about going to the army surplus store and getting supplied to fight those wars on the golf course in town. He talked about how the war movies from the Vietnam war were not so black and white. He meant no pun. He meant that the films were not so easy to dismiss as the earlier versions of the war is glorious era.

The films he discussed had clips that helped to serve his point well. He showed a scene from Apocalypse Now in which the main character played by Martin Sheen goes through a struggle with himself in a Saigon hotel room that was reminiscent of the narrator Marlowe in the Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness. He also showed the famous scene where Colonel Kilgore played by Robert Duvall says his infamous line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

The colonel represents, according to O'Brien, the officer that is too busy with his digressions to be concerned with the reality of the war around him. He is waiting to go surfing when he says these word in the movie. The character becomes a stereotype for the leaders that were outside of the war through choice or playful diversion. The movie clips from The Deer Hunter, helped to put an almost mythological twist of the past with the present. The use of the symbolism in the famous Russian roulette scenes lends itself nicely to the concept that for the foot soldier it was a game of Russian roulette. With every step you were closer to death.

O'Brien showed both the scene in which Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken play Russian roulette in order to escape their captors in a VC compound and the later scene where Christopher Walken dies in the Saigon gaming parlor. He spoke of the intense love that the character played by DeNiro showed for his friend in the later scene.

The discussion that followed O'Brien's presentation was animated and exciting. The questions from the audience showed a meaningful and authentic reaction to the film clips and the introductory discussion by the author.

The following morning at Black Hawk College Tim O'Brien spoke to students and faculty about the attitudes of the Americans to Asians in 1969 and what role it played in the war. He also talked about how that attitude has changed somewhat. He spoke about his going back to Vietnam in 1994 and touring the area where he had been a foot soldier. He returned to LZ Gator and to the Batangan Peninsula and to the area know as Pinkville. He read from The Things He Carried.

He read a selection from "Spin" about an old poppa-san that would lead them through the local mine fields around an area known as Pinkville. "And like the time we enlisted an old poppa-san to guide us through the mine fields out on the Batangan Peninsula. The old guy walked with a limp, slow and stooped over, but he knew where the safe spots were and where you had to be careful and where even if you were careful you could end up like popcorn.

He had a tightrope walker's feel for the land beneath him-its surface tension, the give and take of things. Each morning we'd form up in a long column, the old poppa-san out in front, and for the whole day we'd troop along after him, tracing his footsteps, playing an exact and ruthless game of follow the leader. Rat Kiley made up a rhyme that caught on, and we'd all be chanting it together: Step out of line, hit a mine; follow the dink, you're in the pink.

All around us, the place was littered with Bouncing Betties and Toe Poppers and bobby-trapped artillery rounds, but in those five days on the Batangan Peninsula nobody got hurt. We all learned to love the old man. It was a sad scene when the choppers came to take us away. Jimmy Cross gave the old poppa-san a hug. Mitchell Sanders and Lee Strunk loaded him up with boxes of C rations. There were actually tears in the old guy's eyes. 'Follow dink, ' he said to each of us, 'you go pink'" (37).

The war was fought by boys. Boys that were in a country as foreign as the face of the moon. They were in the land of a people they didn't know or understand. They were boys with too much fire power and too much fear that held on to them like the red dust that covered their boots.

At Augustana College he read from In the Lake of the Woods. From the chapter in titled "The Nature of Love," he read about the hero of the novel, John Wade. He was celebrating a political victory and he and his wife were in a hotel room. "When the party ended, well after midnight, they ordered steaks and champagne from room service. 'Mr. Senator Husband,' Kathy kept saying, but John told her it wasn't necessary, she could call him Honorable Sir, and then he picked up a champagne bottle and used it as a microphone, peeling off his pants, gliding across the room and signing Regrets, I've had a few, and Kathy squealed and flopped back on the bed and grabbed her ankles and rolled around and laughed and yelled 'Honorable Senator Sir!' so John stripped off his shirt and made oily Sinatra moves and sang The record shows I took the blows, and Kathy's green eyes were wet and happy and full of the light that was only Kathy's light and could be no one else's" (64).

When John Wade sings My Way in the novel it is eerie. Everything that has happened to John Wade is a direct result of doing things his way. When things didn't go John's way, he performed magic to make things go his way. When Tim O'Brien reads it, it is just as eerie because he is doing it his way. His way is performing his own magic and it works. His stories grip the audience and force the listener to feel things. Sometimes they are things that you may not want to feel. Real things. Life things. O'Brien does things his way. It is magic.

The character John Wade is a man that desperately needs to be loved. He has done many things to be loved. He has done wrong things in the name of love. His need for love is so strong. It is a need we all have. It is human. It is sometimes painful. O'Brien points out that the love that John Wade has for his wife is what leads to the mystery in this novel. He also points out that a mystery is not solved. As he quipped, "If it is solved, it is not a mystery anymore, is it?"

He further added that if we knew who Jack the Ripper was it also wouldn't be a mystery. If we knew all about what happened on the grassy knoll, it too would cease to be a mystery. Mysteries are there to engage our imagination, not to quell it. For that reason, he says he has left options open for the reader. He has created a mystery novel that uses choices. The choices are left up to the reader. Again, some of the slight of hand that is Tim O'Brien has been accomplished.

Later that night at St. Ambrose University, O'Brien read from The Things They Carried. This was an emotionally charged reading from the chapter entitled "The Lives of the Dead" that held a large audience in a death grip of silence. His reading was about his first viewing of a dead civilian in a village. An old man who was killed in the bombing of the village. His platoon leader had ordered the air strike earlier in the afternoon. He combines the casual, death mocking behavior of his fellow soldiers and the stark reality of seeing death up close in a war zone with a memory of his first dealing with death back in Worthington, Minnesota.

He read through the story of Linda, his nine year old girl friend who died from a brain tumor. He added the story of Ted Lavender, a platoon mate that choose to avoid the war by spacing out on tranquilizers. He was stoned so that the war could be "mellow" for him. These are the stories of the dead. They are stories of purpose. As he says in the novel, "That's what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk. They sometimes say things like, 'Roger that.' Or they say, 'Timmy stop crying,' which is what Linda said to me after she was dead" (261).

The magic that Tim O'Brien uses is the magic that is part of all human beings. It is the magic we all need to survive. With his magic he can make Linda alive, skating on a pond in Worthington, Minnesota. He ends the novel with this selection. "She was nine years old. I loved her and she died. And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can see her as if through ice, as if I'm gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all. I can see Kiowa, too, and Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, and sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I'm young and happy. I'll never die. I'm skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down some thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story" (273).

O'Brien is saving the Timmy in all of us. His writing is saving more of them all the time. Many veterans that hear him speak feel a sense of healing that has been a long, long time in coming. He has been called the "voice of his generation" and rightly so. The love that his characters need is the same love that the author needs. He has a clear need to please his audiences. He gives great drama to his reading and thoughtful reaction to those who ask questions after his readings.

After the reading from The Things They Carried, he was asked by a member of the audience if death and pain were all he wrote about. He had just read a selection that dealt with love and loss, but rather than debate that with the questioner he choose to mollify him. He answered that the subjects do represent a basic element in life. The elements we must all ponder. He also choose to read a selection from his current work in progress. This was an effort to please his audience, an extra, a push, a way to show the other lighter side of Tim O'Brien.

He told an anecdote from "Faith", a short story published recently in The New Yorker. It was a humorous story that had the very same audience laughing. It was a story that deals with the meanings of words and how those words come to mean different things to us because of events in our lives and how sometimes they take on subconscious meanings that will be with us for the rest of our lives. The altered meanings can create more new realities for the reader because, we adapt as we grow and language is just one measure of that adaptation. All of those present will now have a new meaning for words like; "Pontiac," "cornfield," and "Indian head."

Saturday morning the super author was at the Davenport Public Library to speak to a group that was gathered to hear about the role of fiction in story telling. He was becoming hoarse from all of his presentations, but he was game and willing to entertain and enlighten the people that were there. He spoke about the use of the war in his writing and how the stories were just that stories. He spoke about the role of story telling in our lives and the value of it in our culture. He spoke about how history gives facts that after time may become doubtful or at least revised view. Stories get to your heart and to your lungs, and liver, and pancreas. Stories are about people and how they feel. If stories work they give the reader or the listener these feelings. His stories again did that.

After he spoke, people stayed to ask for his autograph and to speak to him and he again obliged. The afternoon session at the Quad City Art Center in the District in downtown Rock Island found Tim O'Brien in his element. He was amongst writers. In a room with twenty-five members of a local writer's group O'Brien seems to gather strength after a vigorous three days as he spoke of his writing and his dedication to writing and to story telling. He spoke to them about how his stories come from images and how they grow. He helped to lead the group through some of the writing exercises that he employs while he is working at his craft. He gave them two writing exercises and responded to the reading of the exercises written by the participants in the workshop.

He is now Tim O'Brien, the teacher. He is again magical, because he is good at teaching too! He works with the group for ninety minutes and spends time at the end signing books and speaking again to those that approach him. He gives much of himself in this session. He has given much of himself throughout the three days.

The last event that Tim is scheduled for is the dinner at the Moline Club that is catered by Le Mekong, a Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Moline, Illinois. Tim reads from The Things They Carried. Again he holds the audience spell bound. He has a special audience at this engagement. An audience that has come all the way from Iowa City. Asian-American Students from the University of Iowa have traveled to hear Tim O'Brien speak and they work as wait staff in order to hear him.

When the people again gather to ask for autographs and to speak with him there are a few faces that have had a long ride and will have a long ride back that are waiting to speak with him also. The magic that O'Brien has worked in the Quad Cities has lasted until the end.

Tim O'Brien writes about pain, love, and growth. For three days he shared those topics and those emotions with a very fortunate mixture of Quad City teenagers, college students, parents, teachers, professors, retired people, Vietnam veterans, a local writer's group, and even a contingent of college students that drove over from Iowa City to hear him speak at the dinner session.

He says that there is not one Vietnam experience, but millions of them. He says that every soldier experienced his or her Vietnam. He says further that Vietnam is a state of mind. It is more than a place or a war. It represents to him the very nature of humanity. It is where people are forced to make moral choices. We all have our Vietnam. It is a place of pain, love, and growth. He has added some of his humanity to the local area with his visit.


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My Vietnam Related Websites:
Women in Vietnam ~ Read about ALL the women who served . . .
Dusty's Home Page ~ Poetry and prose by a woman who was a nurse in Vietnam
The Irish on the Wall ~ An effort to locate the Irish who died in Vietnam
Tim O'Brien's Home Page ~ National Book Award Winner and Americal Vet
Emily's Poetry ~ By a Red Cross Donut Dolly
Shrapnel in the Heart ~ The most moving book you will read on Vietnam
All About Vietnam    ~ An annotated bibliography of books about Vietnam for sale thru Amazon Worldwide!
Battle Dressing ~ The Journey of a Nurse in Vietnam
Project Hearts and Minds ~ Help put Viet Nam back together
Photos from a Holts' Military History Tour ~ My trip to Vietnam, February 1998

My Other Websites:
Maybe Later . . . ~ My Creative Nonfiction
Irish in Korea ~ Irish men and women who gave their lives in the Korean War
Literature of the Korean War ~ Don't let the literature be forgotten
Samuel Pepys ~ One of my favorite authors
Chicago Theatre Z - A ~ This is the best theater town in the country!
Soccer Literature ~ I'm a fan and I read
O'Leary Lantern ~ Fire! Fire! Fire!
Gil Thorp ~ THE Coach (apologies to The General!)
Poetry of the First World War ~ Owen, Hardy and others
Chi-COW-go ~ Cowz plus Commentary (this used to be a cow town)
Graham Fulton, Scottish Poet ~ Charles Manson Auditions for the Monkees

Other Important Websites:
The Truth About Caroline ~ a  really good Young Adult book by my niece, Stacey M. Lane Grosh
Remember Oklahoma City ~  The Civil Service and Military will NEVER forget!
Milton L. Olive III ~ Posthumous Medal of Honor Recipient

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