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William Timothy O’Brien was born on
October 1, 1946, to
an insurance salesman and an elementary school teacher in Austin,
Minnesota. He was raised in Worthington, a small town in southern Minnesota
that he would later describe as what one would find if one “look[ed]
in a dictionary under the word boring.” As a child, the overweight
and introspective O’Brien spent his time practicing magic tricks
and making pilgrimages to the public library. His father’s New
York Times accounts of fighting in Iwo Jima and Okinawa
during World War II inspired O’Brien to consider a career in writing.
When O’Brien arrived at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota,
he decided to focus his studies on political science. His college
years, however, were spent trying to ignore the Vietnam War or railing
against it—he attended peace vigils and war protests and aspired
to join the State Department. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi
Beta Kappa and had already been accepted to a Ph.D. program at Harvard
University’s School of Government when he received his draft notice,
two weeks after graduation.
Faced with the prospect of fighting in the war he so
actively opposed, the twenty-two-year-old O’Brien felt pulled between
his convictions, which could be kept intact by escaping across the
border to Canada, and the expectations of those in his hometown
who, he once said, “couldn’t spell the word ‘Hanoi’ if you spotted
them three vowels.” Though torn, he entered the military for basic
training at Fort Lewis, Washington, on August 14, 1968.
When he arrived in Vietnam in February 1969,
he served in the Fifth Battalion of the 46th
Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade, American
Division until March 1970. O’Brien’s area
of operations was in the Quang Ngai Province, where he later set The
Things They Carried.
O’Brien’s service brought him to the South Vietnamese
village of My Lai a year after the infamous massacre of 1968.
He was eventually wounded and returned home with a Purple Heart,
a Bronze Star for Valor, and a Combat Infantry Badge. He also had
a storehouse of guilt and an endless supply of observations and
anecdotes that would later comprise his memoir If I Die
in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. This work
was published in 1973 as O’Brien was abandoning
his graduate studies for a career as a national affairs reporter
for the Washington Post. That reporting stint lasted
a year. In 1975 he published Northern
Lights, an account of two brothers in rural Minnesota. Going
After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award in 1979 over
John Irving’s The World According to Garp and John
Cheever’s Stories, was the account of a platoon
forced to chase one of its AWOL soliders.
Winning the National Book Award solidified O’Brien’s reputation
as a masterful writer concerned with the ambiguities of love and
war. Following this success came The Nuclear Age, a
novel about a draft-dodger obsessed with the idea of nuclear holocaust,
published in 1985.
After The Nuclear Age’s home-front comedy,
O’Brien returned his attention to the battlefields. He wrote a short
story, “Speaking of Courage,” that was originally meant for inclusion
in Going After Cacciato. In 1990,
“Speaking of Courage” was one of twenty-two stories included in The
Things They Carried, a sequence of lyrical and interrelated
stories that has been heralded as one of the finest volumes of fiction
about the Vietnam War. The work gained attention and wide acclaim
not only for its subject matter but also for its honesty and specificity,
its discussion of fact and fiction, and its commentary on memory
and on the act of storytelling itself. Much of the material in the
work has been drawn from O’Brien’s experiences; he felt so close
to his stories that he dedicated the work to his characters—Jimmy
Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins,
and Kiowa. The most striking elimination of the boundary between
fact and fiction is the narrator and protagonist’s name, Tim O’Brien.
The main character also has grown up in Worthington, Minnesota,
and has attended Macalester College. Like the real O’Brien, the
fictional O’Brien becomes a writer who records many of his Vietnam
experiences in stories and novels. Nevertheless, several discrepancies
exist between the two men. Unlike his protagonist, for example,
the real O’Brien never killed a man while at war, and he doesn’t
have any children.
The Things They Carried was a finalist
for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle
Award, and it earned O’Brien comparisons to several eminent fiction
writers. Two to whom he is often connected are Stephen Crane and
Kurt Vonnegut. Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, published
in 1895, follows a Union regiment during
the Civil War and specifically concerns a recruit who, like the
protagonist in The Things They Carried, struggles
with his fear of cowardice and the “red sickness of battle.” Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five is
about a World War II draftee who is taken as a prisoner-of-war during
the Battle of the Bulge. Like Vonnegut, O’Brien inserts himself
into his stories—in order to anchor his narratives to a larger world,
but also because he is unable to escape the often terrifying memories
of his war experience.