Thursday, September 14, 2017

"The Things They Carried" (1986)

Read story by Tim O'Brien online.

Tim O'Brien's story was evidently conceived as the first story in a cycle of stories going by the same name, The Things They Carried, published in 1990. Wikipedia calls it a novel, but this story reads more like a stand-alone than, for example, Dorothy Allison's "River of Names," which is also from the collection edited by Tobias Wolff. At the same time, O'Brien's story is sounding big themes, suitable for later enlargement. The art of this particular story is that it works pretty well either way—as a story, or as an overture to a novel. Literally the objects of the title are scrutinized. The small outfit of American soldiers on patrol duty in Vietnam is described as carrying rifles, radios, food, camping equipment, and other necessary (and unnecessary) items. They all carry peculiar keepsakes, letters from home and such. As a group, they "carried themselves with poise." And they carry internal burdens. The stand-alone narrative—which might well be developed further in a larger novel—is about a soldier killed by a sniper while the band is on patrol. It is a shocking incident for all, and a crisis for the leader, 24-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. They respond in ways we've been trained to expect by Vietnam War stories, in this case by burning down a village. It's good powerful stuff, delivered with a sure grim tone and a lot of insight into private and personal pains. If they sometimes feel like clichés now, that's not exactly O'Brien's faults. He was among the first to use them with Going After Cacciato in 1978, before they were clichés. O'Brien feels a little in the literary war lineage of Ernest Hemingway and Normal Mailer. Cacciato was ripe with literary conceit, saturated through with O'Brien's remarkable eye for the Vietnam War experience. We know these stories so well now it's easy to miss the precision of the execution. I have a strong hunch, for example—not knowing the full-length Things They Carried—that our Lieutenant Cross is a candidate for fragging. Certainly more than one of the characters we meet in this story, not just the one killed here, will come to a sad wartime end. I'm not averse to reading more. The story is fine. But I find myself orienting the same way I do with any genre literature. On certain obvious levels you're never going to be surprised.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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