More than 20 years later, O’Brien’s Vietnam novel still at top

National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien is well aware of the fate of even the best-received literary novels.

“It’s very rare that a book will sell even a single copy after five or six years,” he said.

Which is why O’Brien is so pleased and gratified that his landmark 1990 Vietnam War novel, “The Things They Carried,” is still carried in students’ book bags, soldiers’ rucksacks and bookstores all over the country.

“Who would have guessed it?” he said.

This spring, “The Things They Carried” has been sighted on coffee tables and in coffee shops all over greater Spokane. It was selected as the local book for the Big Read, the community-wide reading event sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Then, in a touch of literary synergy, O’Brien was booked as the Saturday headliner of Eastern Washington University’s Get Lit! Festival.

O’Brien, who lives and writes in Austin, Texas, will share the stage with Brian Turner, an Iraq war veteran and acclaimed poet.

Back in 1990, O’Brien assumed that his book would appeal mostly to readers of literary fiction as opposed to people interested in “a standard war novel” – which it is definitely not.

He took big creative risks by inserting a character, a writer with his own name, into the story. O’Brien did, in fact, serve in Vietnam in a unit much like the one he was writing about. Yet he also makes it clear that the story is fictional.

Then he devotes passages to such complicated questions as “What does it mean to say a thing is true or not true?” and “Can a novel tell the truth in a way that nonfiction can’t?”

O’Brien wondered, at the time, whether all of this was a good idea.

“I remember sitting at my desk saying, ‘Am I really going to do this? Write a book using my own name and trying to convince, through fiction, that it’s real?’ ” he said.

“But once I was engaged in doing it, it became a literary exercise more than anything. I would periodically remind the reader that they were reading a novel and that stuff was invented.”

Otherwise, he said, “it would read as a lie to me.”

O’Brien said the original 1990 critical reception for “The Things They Carried” was “fantastic,” but sales were not exactly Steven King-like. It sold about 30,000 copies the first few years.

Then something surprising happened. It began showing up on class reading lists.

“It began to be adopted, first by colleges, and then in high schools,” said O’Brien. “Now, I hear from so many high school students, I can’t respond to them all.”

O’Brien said it’s hard to find a college that doesn’t have it on some kind of reading list. Students pass around their copies to parents and friends, expanding the novel’s reach.

Meanwhile, another factor has given “The Things They Carried” new life.

“There are a couple of wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said O’Brien. “I think that makes it pertinent to what we’re going through today, not just to soldiers fighting the war, but their families as well.

“I hear from hundreds and hundreds of people … not just from soldiers, but from wives and girlfriends and children, all of whom say the same thing. They say, ‘My dad or boyfriend won’t talk about it, but at least now, having read your book, I know something of what he went through.’ ”

The book is an exceptionally vivid and powerful account of what it was like to be a young American man prowling through the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam.

It describes what it’s like to see your buddy step on a land mine or to drop like a stone from a gunshot. It also explains the momentous burdens soldiers carried both before they were drafted and after they came home.

However, O’Brien would like to debunk one persistent claim.

“I always feel bad when people say ‘The Things They Carried’ is the book (about the Vietnam War), because it’s not, it’s really not,” he said.

He said there are many more worthy candidates, especially Michael Herr’s “Dispatches,” which is “really a work of genius, a beautiful, beautiful book.”

The Vietnam War was a “huge social phenomenon that went on for many years,” O’Brien said, and cannot be encapsulated in one book.

“It would be like saying Norman Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead’ was the book (about World War II),” he said. “What a disservice that would be to Kurt Vonnegut and James Jones.”

Issues of truth-versus-fiction proved to be another factor that planted “The Things They Carried” on reading lists.

“The style of the book intrigues students,” said O’Brien, “the blurring of the line. But it’s something that other people are frustrated by – especially veterans are frustrated by it. By and large, they want a straightforward war narrative.”

The book’s celebrated opening chapter is a description of what each man in the unit carried in his rucksack.

Some items illuminate the kind of war they were fighting – mosquito repellent, Claymore antipersonnel mines – while others illuminate the kind of men they were – letters from girls, a feathered Indian hatchet.

And, of course, some of “the things they carried” were moral and emotional burdens.

Last week, a story broke on National Public Radio about an emerging problem among Iraq and Afghanistan war vets: chronic muscular and skeletal problems from carrying heavy gear on patrol.

It was a timely reminder that “the things they carried” continue to weigh down soldiers.

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