Telling War Stories

Tim O'Brien, Tequila, and a Few Late Nights

Telling War Stories
By Todd V. Wolfson

This is a true story. I wake up way too early, my tongue thick and fuzzy, my head too muddy to hurt yet. The situation is still being slowly, reluctantly assessed. My bed. Thursday. Driven home by responsible roommate. Relatively little damage. As the light starts to pierce through my blinds, questions begin to arise. A common one: How much did I drink last night? A rough tally is made. Could it be that much? Could it be more? Later in the day, the usual inquiries will be made, but right now all I want to do is go back to sleep. My mind is racing, though, all my thoughts one big splat. Like this: What the hell am I doing with my life? Not scolding, just curious. As in: Really. What? Here's another: Whose idea were the goddamned tequila shots? But that one's easy.

Tim O'Brien made me do it.

Although I count myself an avid fan of his fiction, Tim O'Brien is, on the morning of my hangover, associated with my downfall. I know this is not fair. After all, it was a blast at the time, and you certainly didn't hear me complaining last night. It's not as though it's his fault I tied one on when I should have been sleeping one off. These things just happen -- words get linked with events and then soldered together so that they mean more than their usual, banal definitions. Just ask Thomas Chippering, the protagonist of O'Brien's most recent novel, Tomcat in Love: "At a cocktail party, say, or at a ball game, or at our daughter's wedding, would you feel Death slide between your ribs if someone were to utter the name of your ex-husband? Can a color cause bad dreams? Can a cornfield make you cry?" It all depends, of course, on your experience.

Salt. Tequila. Lime. Tim O'Brien.

Once the lousy hangover wears off, and I am back among the living, the tempo will change, make a dramatic upswing: Salt! Tequila! Lime! Tim O'Brien!

That's just one Tim O'Brien association. There are hundreds more.

Tim O'Brien has been many things -- bestselling author, amateur golfer, Pulitzer Prize nominee, Washington Post reporter, recreational gambler, National Book Award winner, Harvard student -- but most people associate Tim O'Brien with Vietnam, a war he served in from 1969-1970. In seven novels, he has explored various genres and written about heartache, loss, the awful things we will do to get love, and keep it -- but his legacy is seared as a chronicler of this century's least-understood war. Although his third novel, Going After Cacciato, won him the National Book Award in 1979, he is better known for his gracefully interwoven collection of short stories, The Things They Carried, which follows a group of grunts through their tour of duty and beyond. (Students of 20th-century American literature are divided into two categories: Those who were assigned to read that book's title story, and those who should have been.)

In San Marcos, Tim O'Brien is associated with Southwest Texas State's M.F.A. creative writing program, where he currently holds the distinguished Mitte Chair, a one-year rotating position that awards him $120,000. For the first time in his life, he is a professor, although rarely -- if ever -- called that. He came to the program after visiting in October of 1998, at the request of the program's director, Tom Grimes, an accomplished author in his own right. "I called him because he's Tim O'Brien," Grimes explains, "by which I mean a writer that every other writer in America admires beyond expression."

As luck would have it, the admiration was mutual. O'Brien fell in love with the program, its friendly spirit and camaraderie. And Texas -- which seemed like cowboys and tumbleweeds when he was back in Cambridge -- turned out to be not so bad after all. "It's warm here," he explains, with the envy of a lifetime northerner, too familiar with chills that burrow into your bones. Not long after coming to San Marcos, he extended his contract past the year commitment, and bought a home on the golf green in Onion Creek, where he lives with his fiancée, actress and director Meredith Baker.

Melissa Falcon and Matt Oates are two of his students. They talk with fondness of Tim O'Brien the man, and with admiration of Tim O'Brien the author. Whatever a National Book Award winner was supposed to be like -- glasses? beard, maybe? more serious? suits perhaps? -- Tim O'Brien, a jeans and T-shirt kind of a guy, casual baseball cap firmly planted on head, was not what they bargained for.

"Tim is in no way the person I expected," Melissa says. "I expected a nerd, a guy who locked himself in a basement for weeks on end with one reading lamp and a giant thesaurus. How else could he be so good? But what I learned after a semester with Tim is that, like the characters in his books, he lives a real life."

"Tim's belief is that a story -- like life -- is about risk," Melissa goes on to explain. "Consequently he encourages writers to take risks in their work, to have characters make sacrifices, to create action that makes for unanticipated plot turns."

O'Brien impresses upon his students simple, straightforward advice -- use active verbs, avoid unintentional puns, show rather than tell. He demands rewrites, even though it means more work for him. "The students adore him because he cares so passionately about literature," Grimes explains, "and about their work. This man does not collect a paycheck and go home." He also doesn't shield them from the financial and emotional realities of the path they have chosen. "Writing doesn't get easier," O'Brien reminds them, "it gets harder." And above all, he urges them to take themselves -- and their work -- seriously.

"Tim's not a professor," Matt explains. "Most professors are professional bullshitters. Tim's real. He's blunt. I've seen him ream students out in class for using improper grammar. Not because he's anal, but because he cares. He's like, 'If you don't care about the beauty of an individual sentence -- if that's not important to you -- then don't write.'"

"This man will be enraged by a manuscript that lacks the proper use of punctuation," Melissa warns. "Never again will I forget a comma."

But the perfectionist is balanced out by a good nature, a sometimes crass sense of humor, and unflagging enthusiasm for his subject.

By now, everyone has a Tim O'Brien story.

"We're getting drinks at this Mexican restaurant," Matt remembers, "and Cyrus Cassells, this brilliant gay poet, starts telling a story about being in France and staying with this woman who starred in Gone With the Wind. Of course, we're all like: Damn, what an incredible story. Tim looks up at Cyrus and says, 'Did you hit on her?'"

San Marcos' River Pub Bar & Grill is made for simple drinkin' -- no leather couches or purple pool tables. No drink specials or walk-in humidors. At the River Pub Bar & Grill, there are rows and rows of wooden picnic tables, Top 40 music pouring from the ceiling, a dart board in back. On most Thursday nights, this is where you can find Tim O'Brien -- chilling out after class with students he has come to regard as friends, and professors who have become partners in crime. This is Tim O'Brien, loud laugher, generous tipper, restless collector of experience, never one to have a "gathering" when he could have a party. Anyone is welcome at Tim's table, and the table grows and spreads, with Tim at the center, sometimes wandering to different clusters, dropping in on the conversation unexpectedly, often with a joke.

"How's your beer?" someone might ask him, to which Tim might crinkle his nose.

"Too slow," he answers, swirling the brown liquid in his pint glass.

And within minutes, the entire table has been supplied: Salt! Tequila! Lime!

The drinks start piling up -- coming so quickly it's hard to know whose is whose. Later, it will be difficult to remember one conversational strand -- they seem to knot up and trail off into something else, like the plotline of a dream, changing shape without explanation. One minute Tim is talking about his recent trip to Vegas, and how he loves to gamble, and the next he is going over a student's story with them. When he hears me mention Joyce Carol Oates, he leans into the conversation.

"She's such a great writer," he says. "People don't appreciate her because she's so prolific, but she's fantastic. Have you read Wonderland?" I shake my head. "Oh, you gotta read Wonderland." Smoking his Carltons the whole time, doling them out to the social smokers, who have failed to buy their own pack before coming. Tomorrow I will buy Wonderland.

The only problem with the River Pub Bar & Grill, as many of its patrons might tell you, is that it closes at midnight, like all the bars in San Marcos. When the waiter sounds the last call, Tim turns to me.

"What time do bars in Austin close?" he asks. After months in the area, he has yet to go to one. I tell him they close at two.

"But you can't smoke there," he says, disappointed.

"Sure you can."

"Oh, you can?" he says, suddenly delighted. "We gotta go to Austin sometime!"

The lights flicker up cruelly. The check sits buried on the table, under piles of unbroken bills.

"It's already midnight?" someone pouts.

"I'm not ready to leave yet," Tim says, in a mocking tantrum.

There is a general, good-natured grumbling about religious laws and how time flies and how early midnight sometimes feels.

Until eventually, someone might say, "I have beer at my place."

And the party continues somewhere else.

"Stories are not explanations of the world we live in." Tim O'Brien is alone on the stage, austere, staring out at an audience full of people. They are gathered in an SWT auditorium for O'Brien's speech, one of three he has given this year as part of his Mitte Chair responsibilities. "Science does that, and math does that. Our obligation as fiction writers is to enhance the mysteries."

As long as he continues to hone his craft, Tim O'Brien will keep us guessing. There are no answers in a Tim O'Brien story. No morals either. There are, more likely, frayed ends and questions that tumble into more questions. Take, for example, 1994's In the Lake of the Woods, a mystery about a ruined man and his missing wife that merely grows more entangled as it progresses. The book is a finely crafted exploration of a simple truth: We can never truly know each other. "We are fascinated, all of us, by the implacable otherness of others," explains the narrator in one of his occasional intrusions into the novel. "And we wish to penetrate by hypothesis, by daydream, by scientific investigation those leaden walls that encase the human spirit, that define it and guard it and hold it forever inaccessible. Our lovers, our husbands, our wives, our fathers, our gods -- they are all beyond us."

And by extension, so is Tim O'Brien. Sometimes, when I see him speak humbly with visiting high school students after a speech or sit laughing with students at the bar, it's hard to connect this Tim O'Brien with the author of books brimming with such ache and terrible sadness. "A writer's obligation is to invent," Tim explains to the students at his speech, "to go beyond what did happen and to look at what could have happened, but didn't. Fiction writers are born liars," he continues. But the emotions there are real.

"Someone once asked him if the war had made him a better person," Grimes says. "And Tim responded that, in a way, he thought it had. I regret all his losses and the things he still carries because of the war, and my guess is that Tim was as decent and honorable as they come before the war. But my sense is that the war enlarged his sense of compassion, and I believe that, because it comes through so articulately in his work, people are moved by his stories at a level very few writers even touch or reach."

Everyone has their favorite Tim O'Brien story.

My friend Erica, in Politics, loves In the Lake of the Woods. Tim's student Melissa reveres the first chapter of Tomcat in Love, "Faith." My college roommate loved "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bon," a story midway through The Things They Carried, about a woman who goes into the Vietnam jungle and taps into her primal self. Another colleague told me his favorite story in that book is "On the Rainy River," the story of how a Harvard-bound college grad named Tim O'Brien drove eight hours north to the border of Canada, only to realize he would go to the war: "I would go to the war -- I would kill and maybe die -- because I was embarrassed not to." There is, also, "The Things They Carried" itself, anthologized in the John Updike-edited Best American Short Stories of the Century. But I hold a certain fondness for the last story of The Things They Carried, "The Lives of the Dead."

Like a lot of O'Brien's work, it is a story about the redemptive power of stories. Maybe it's a true story. It probably isn't. But in it, a nine-year-old learns to cope with his first real loss through the only tool at his disposal: an active imagination. The girl in the story may have never existed, but little Timmy did. "The human life is all one thing," O'Brien writes, "like a blade tracing loops on the ice: a little kid, a twenty-three-year-old infantry sergeant, a middle-aged writer knowing guilt and sorrow."

Tim O'Brien says there's no moral to a war story, but there is a lesson here: "Stories can save us."

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Tim O'Brien, Southwest Texas State Creative Writing Program

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