TIM O'BRIEN

Everything is wrong

That is not to say that O'Brien eschews morality in his writing--not at all--but rather that in Vietnam he finds himself residing in a shadow-world past morality's known borders. So he carries no need, or rather no ability, to pass judgement on the workaday terror that transpires around him. Starting with the moment he mistakenly reported for duty, everything is already wrong.

Yet a man dwells in this nether land at his peril. That's what John Wade discovers in O'Brien's almost hallucinatory novel In the Lake of the Woods (1994). At the beginning of the story, Wade and his wife Kathy have retreated to a cabin at the edge of the Boundary Waters. He's suffered a landslide loss in a Senate race after revelations of his long-hidden involvement in the massacre at My Lai. (O'Brien himself was stationed there with his Alpha Company a year after the killings.) Soon after arriving at the lake, Kathy disappears. Wade emerges as the leading suspect as O'Brien offers different scenarios of what might have caused her absence.

In a broader sense, though, the mystery has less to do with Kathy's whereabouts than Wade's, and his own longtime absence in his married life. He, too, is among the missing. Where was he during My Lai? Where is he now? Through public service, he has "aspired to a condition of virtue," yet his experience has left him with a "simple befuddlement, maybe. Moral disunity. A lost soul... Wade felt an estrangement from the actuality of the world, its basic nowness, and in the end all he could conjure up was an image of illusion itself, pure reflection, a head full of mirrors."

Ultimately, Wade rips the radio out of a borrowed boat and heads due north--the same journey a young O'Brien had lacked the courage to make. Like Paul Berlin in a novel 20 years earlier, Wade is trying to walk away from who he is, who he claims to be, who he has been. Unlike Berlin's, however, his flight might be permanent: He has drifted unmoored for too long. And to this extent, In the Lake of the Woods seems to represent a new conclusion, a new page for its author: The evasive maneuvers of Vietnam cannot be continued indefinitely on the home front.

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