Walking Wounded

In 'July, July,' Tim O'Brien bares the scars of the Vietnam generation

It's in the novel's war flashbacks, too, that O'Brien introduces his most intriguing narrative device: a sometimes malevolent, possibly angelic presence who later appears in various other incarnations throughout the novel. (Functioning as a moral sounding board, July, July's angel recalls the spectral Vietnamese woman who guides the daydreaming soldier-hero through the labyrinth of Vietnam in Going After Cacciato.) As David Todd hallucinates from morphine injections--absurdly, he's been shot through both feet--the disembodied hipster-angel offers a bleak prognosis for the future: "You ready for the heartache routine? You really want that? I mean, do you? Managing some sorry Triple-Z outfit in East Paducah? Chaw stains on your molars? Gum cancer? Eating your guts out over a screwed-up ex-wife? Apocalypse, man, it's a sure bet. Boom, down comes Babylon. Ebola. Plague. That's life, Davy. Everybody dies."

While never so fatalistic, in conversation O'Brien sounds not a little like one of July, July's walking wounded, surveying his life from a relatively safe distance. "Vietnam will always be there for me," he says. "If you asked Toni Morrison why she writes about black people, she'd look at you funny. Conrad wrote about the ocean. Updike writes about the suburbs. I write about Vietnam. But my hope is some kid somewhere who's not a boomer and who didn't live through those times would pick up the book and get it. Because everybody tells lies that get them in trouble. Everybody has things that keep them awake at night.

"Everyone has these feelings of disappointment, of misspent time," he continues. "Everyone gets dealt a bad hand at one time or another. And everyone has these fantasies of how things could have turned out differently. Those are the little bits of human optimism that keep us going. But there's also a dark side to those fantasies, in that it can become a really compulsive thing."

And therein lies the trap that July, July's characters fall into: Caught in a feedback loop of their own invention, compulsively rewriting the same history, they seem lost in a fast-receding past. Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned from Marv Bertel after all: A well-told dishonesty rarely leads to long-term happiness--even if it does keep the mops moving off the shelves.

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