what i’m reading: the things they carried

I first came to know Tim O’Brien’s writing in college. It was in one of my writing classes that we read some of his short stories. I added him and his book, The Things They Carried, to the ever-growing list of books and authors I would read one day.

One day came almost seven years later… wow, seven years. I. am. so. lame. I was wandering and wondering through Barnes & Noble looking for something that sounded familiar, a classic, something I had heard was good, something short. There’s plenty of that, but you know… something that moves you. Never mind that I had piles and piles of books at home that I’ve not yet read, I like buying books. I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the book that I had only thought of in passing these past seven years, The Things They Carried, and I was suddenly moved to action. I picked it up and walked purposefully to the register.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a work of art. It is so beautifully moving and thought-provoking. His book is a collection of short stories written about his experience in Vietnam.

:::SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ PASSED THIS POINT IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW SPECIFICS ABOUT THIS BOOK:::

The opening story, and the book’s namesake, begins with a report of the equipment, mementos, and necessities that O’Brien and his fellow soldiers carry with them, the things. They carry. Not only carry actually, but carry metaphorically. The regrets, the wishes, the dreams of these soldiers’ past and hope full future.

I especially loved the pragmatic weighing of the things. The 4 ounces of letters, 2.1 pound jungle boots, the 12 pounds of mosquito repellent, chewing gum, water canteens, kool aid packets and other things, the 29 pound radio and you’re reading these lists and you’re thinking man, that’s a lot of weight. And then you think about how someone makes those kinds of decisions. After you put on the things you have to carry, how do you choose what else to carry, what additional weight you want to “hump” around Vietnam with you.

O’Brien talks about bibles that double as pillows, love letters and pictures cause they don’t weigh very much or take up much space, but always wrapped in plastic to protect from the weather, a pebble he keeps in his mouth. Sentimental things that remind them of civilian life. And you wonder about the figurative, right? The metaphorical weight they carry on their backs – from the big ideas like freedom to the more personal — death. Will they leave Vietnam? Will they ever be as they were?

I dog-eared so many pages that spoke to me, that touched my heart, but you’ll have to read it yourself. It’s not too long. It’s just 233 pages of short stories. I’ll leave you with a little bit about my next favorite story, so far (it’s true, I’ve not yet finished it :/ ).

How To Tell a True War Story is a good one. You channel your romantic ideas of wartime camaraderie and feel like you’re there hearing the story directly from O’Brien. Just amazing as he describes the death of one soldier, explains the anatomy of a war story, what makes it real and unreal all at the same time, but not in the grammar teacher sort of way. You near the end of the story feeling like, yeah man, you get it, and then O’Brien effing flips you on your head and you don’t know which way is up anymore. Was any of it true?

An excerpt:

“How do you generalize?

War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.

The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat…

Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face. I can see him turning, looking back at Rat Kiley, then he laughed and took that curious half step from shade into sunlight, his face suddenly brown and shining and when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must’ve thought it was the sunlight that was killing him. It was not the sunlight. It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pluck him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow recreate the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth.

Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can’t understand why people want to wallow in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. They poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she’ll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.

I won’t say it but I’ll think it.

I’ll picture Rat Kiley’s face, his grief, and I’ll think, You dumb cooze.

Because she wasn’t listening.

It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story.”

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2 thoughts on “what i’m reading: the things they carried

  1. Love Tim O’Brien and The Things They Carried. I read it years ago, and maybe 2 years ago he came to speak at the College of Charleston. Got to go to a little lunch with him and then heard him speak to a larger audience. What a fascinating author – and great book. Glad you got to read it and enjoy it!

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