The funniest episode in Tim O'Brien's otherwise earnest new novel, July, July, concerns an overweight mop-and-broom tycoon named Marv Bertel who goes on a diet, ditches his frumpy wife, and reinvents himself as a celebrated, famously reclusive writer. So successful is this ruse that he impresses a young woman into marrying him--this despite the fact that he has never written a word and never plans to do so. He's only discovered on the eve of his nuptials; and even then, he's able to improvise a détente. "In the end, Marv noted, he'd had the amazing good fortune to bump into a woman who could appreciate a straightforward lie or two, who could give credit where credit was due, and who could without compunction return tit for tat. Under this woman's hard-headed leadership, the mop-and-broom enterprise would surely flourish."
"That story actually came out of the real world," reveals O'Brien, speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, where he now teaches creative writing at Southwest Texas State University. "I'd gotten a letter from this woman in North Carolina about a guy who was going around in bars telling women he wrote under the pen name Tim O'Brien. Well, they started dating, and they got engaged.
"Eventually, she noticed that he wasn't getting any royalty checks and confronted him," he laughs. "Finally, he admitted he'd lied and just gotten trapped."
At first blush, the stratagem seems singularly preposterous: Far from a recluse, Tim O'Brien is one of America's most celebrated living writers. Minnesota native, Vietnam War veteran, National Book Award winner in 1979 for Going After Cacciato, and author of the much-anthologized fictional memoir The Things They Carried, O'Brien is hardly a writer of Salingeresque tendencies. Yet, upon reflection, perhaps the ruse makes perfect sense: Few authors are more intimately entangled in the act of transmuting biography into fiction. O'Brien's collected works amount to a meditation on the unknowability of truth--and the fictions we construct to guard against terminal uncertainty. You could even say that, if Marv Bertel hadn't existed, it might have been necessary for Tim O'Brien to invent him.
O'Brien's chameleonic reputation stems from the frequency with which he has excavated his autobiography for fictional material--such that it's often impossible to say for certain where the man ends and where the story begins. The protagonist of The Things They Carried, for instance, is a young soldier named Tim O'Brien. Sometimes, O'Brien tells stories about things that happened in Vietnam (a soldier named Curt Lemon stepped on a landmine and died). Other times he tells stories about what seemed to happen (Curt Lemon is sucked up into the jungle canopy in a whoosh of sunshine). This, because Tim O'Brien the author believes that the truth of a story lies in its telling. "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen," he writes in "How to Tell a True War Story" from that same book. "What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way."
July, July, while perhaps less overtly autobiographical than any of O'Brien's war fictions, likewise derives from its author's experience. The novel's setting is the 30th class reunion of a small Minnesota college--a thinly fictionalized version of Macalester, which graduated O'Brien shortly before he was drafted into the army. "I guess I had a wistful feeling about reunions, having never gone back to Macalester for one," the author explains. "I was wondering, 'What does 30 years do to a person? What would it do to the people I knew?' At a class reunion, it's like you're going to the top of this hill, and you can look forward or backward."
The passing decades have been particularly unkind to July, July's Class of '69: One of its members has been murdered; another has drowned during an illicit rendezvous. David Todd, who went to Vietnam, came home without a leg. Billy McMann, who fled to Canada instead, is poisoned by self-hatred and guilt. Dorothy Stier, a Republican housewife, has lost a breast to a mastectomy. Spook Spinelli, a free-loving nymphet, is suicidally depressed. Paulette Haslo, a disgraced minister, has lost her congregation. Marv, the mop tycoon, has lost his health.
Like nearly all of O'Brien's characters, these boom babies are compulsive scab pickers: Divorced, sodden with boozy nostalgia, and stumbling gracelessly through late middle age, they torment themselves ceaselessly with long-ago betrayals. Further, they're aware that they've become parodic clichés of their generation--that mushily sentimental Big Chill demographic who decided in the 1960s that they'd forever cornered the market on youth and idealism. Early on in the book, a peripheral character delivers their litany of complaint: "Total shame, isn't it? The golden generation. Such big dreams--kick ass, never die--but somehow it all went poof. I mean, it's a hard thing to swallow, but ideology doesn't have politics. The old bod, you know? Just keeps doing its silly, deadly, boring shit."
In truest O'Brien form, July, July slips quickly away from the present to interrogate its characters' fateful decisions. In some cases, their sins are passive, functions of middle-aged drift: A woman chooses the wrong man to have an affair with; a frumpy hippie poses for a few dirty photographs. Yet for all these excursions onto the home front, O'Brien seems most engaged when writing about the familiar terrain of the war--as much the fulcrum in the lives of the novel's characters as it was in O'Brien's. David and Billy, in particular, the soldier and the conscientious defector, seem to represent the divergent possibilities faced by O'Brien himself in 1968, when he chose to go to war over the objections of his conscience.
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.