Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods Rage of Innocence

Twenty-one years after the United States ended its Vietnam involvement, the nation is willing to take unblinking looks at its horror, and publishers are regularly printing books they would previously have rejected for striking too sensitive a chord in the national psyche. Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods (Penguin, $10.95, paper), winner of the 1995 Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction, is one such hard look.

The novel begins after John Wade, a promising young politician, has just lost a Minnesota Senate election. Political mudslinging has exposed his presence at the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, where American soldiers butchered 200-500 civilians. Wade, nicknamed "Sorcerer" by his company due to his interest in magic tricks, has as his last vanishing act spent years trying to erase Mai Lai from his past and from his own psyche, altering government records and allowing even his wife Kathy to remain unaware of the truth. Now, knowing his political career is permanently ruined, John struggles to keep his sense of self and his marriage intact as memories of what he has seen and done begin to haunt him, unearthing the enormous amount of unfocused rage he still harbors inside.

After the election, Wade and his wife withdraw from the public eye to a remote Minnesota cabin to rebuild their lives and their marriage. Soon after they arrive, Kathy Wade vanishes and John's questionable past fosters suspicions that he is responsible for her disappearance. More than a month later, John rents a boat and disappears also, leaving only a radio broadcast of garbled prayers and broken pleas for love in his wake.

O'Brien makes use of admirable technical innovations to dramatize John's story. Dissatisfied with a linear narrative's ability to capture his truth, he has invented his own fictional form. Certain chapters describe actual events through the eyes of a sympathetic, non-omniscient narrator: "How Unhappy They Were;" "What He Did Next;" and "How He Went Away." Between these lie chapters called "Hypothesis," in which O'Brien repeatedly tells the story of Kathy's disappearance, each time guessing at the truth. Did John murder his wife? Was she kidnapped? Did the couple plan the escape together? Did Kathy run away intentionally, to escape from the deception that had infiltrated her life with John? The author gives each case imaginative reality.

Other chapters, each one called "Evidence," assemble sundry tidbits: pychological theories, lists of Wade's old possessions, excerpts from Mai Lai court-martial testimony, bits of novels, political biographies, and magic book catalogues; and quotes from Wade's combat buddies and the couple's friends and relatives. We join the narrator on a familiar journey: the struggle to make sense of a painful or mysterious experience by assembling its pieces: shards of incomplete memory, things that were said that firebranded themselves in the mind, a few remnant objects, articles, or books that speak to that experience in overt or subtle ways. Like O'Brien's narrator, we bombard the experience from every mental angle as we seek to understand what happened, be it love, war, or (as in O'Brien's case) both, coming up against the limits of human knowledge at every mental turn.

Finally, the novel ends with all the hypotheses and bits of evidence and speculations lying on the reader's mental table; O'Brien prefers to present problems in all their complexity rather than simplifying them in order to consider them solved. His simple diction enables the brutality of the situations he describes to speak for itself. Despite that strength, occasional overly dramatic chapter-ending phrases like, "Maybe she's still out there," and, "Can we believe that he was not a monster but a man?" disappointingly betray O'Brien' lapses into a cheap-thriller strategy that's hardly worthy of the subject matter. With such phrases, he tries to forcibly construct an ominous feeling that already exists, and his efforts only dilute it.

What they don't dilute is a powerful exploration of John Wade's character.The story examines what can happen when a human heart collects an enormous amount of unexpressed rage, but can find no scapegoat -- rage that emerges in John's fevered nightmares, in his pouring boiling water on houseplants in the middle of the night, and in his fevered utterings, "Kill Jesus." Beyond an exploration of post-traumatic rage, In the Lake of the Woods represents O'Brien's struggle to understand the potential for evil in each of us and the atrocious things we may do for acceptance -- from lying to our lovers to murdering hundreds for our platoon. As the author says, "This book is a way of helping myself start to say, `No, I'm not going to do things I think are wrong and stupid so people will like me.'"

Despite the courtroom testimonies, evidence, and psychological theories O'Brien presents about "The Nature of Marriage," "The Nature of Loss," and "The Nature of the Beast" (other chapter titles in the book), O'Brien's insight into the complexity of human motivation is ultimately neither empirical nor social-scientific -- it is poetic. n

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