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The Philadelphia Inquirer, (PA)
October 27, 1994
Author: Mike Capuzzo, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
On a bright, lovely morning, Tim O’Brien, whom some regard as the greatest war novelist since Tolstoy, is preparing to tell the world that, at age 48, he cannot write fiction anymore. It hurts too much.
The novelist is the picture of physical health, in the fullness of his powers, wealthy, and assured of literary immortality. The National Book Award- winning author of Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried has just completed his third Vietnam novel. He is being celebrated anew; his publisher is spending thousands of dollars to send him across the country to be feted and to sell the thing, all 75,000 copies.
O’Brien can’t go on with this kind of life.
Writing what he says is his last Vietnam novel, In the Lake of the Woods, O’Brien went to “the bottom of the well,” he says, the place artists and madmen dwell, and barely made it out alive. A number of times, he says, he thought of emptying the bottle of little yellow pills, to make the pain go away.
The previous night there were no sleeping pills. This morning there was no help at all.
“I’m exhausted,” O’Brien says, slumped in the back of a limousine in New York City on his way to yet another interview to sell In the Lake of the Woods, on the media tour that took him on Friday to Borders Book Shop in Center City. “I didn’t get any sleep last night, not a minute.” Why? “Life. Personal things. Hell.”
He had debated his demons until dawn, humping along on wartime. “You don’t have to be in a war to be on wartime,” he says. “If you’ve ever seen a father waste away, if you’ve ever had your husband leave you, that’s wartime. It’s the awful drip-drip-drip of now. You look at your watch and it’s 5:01. An eternity later, you check again. It’s 5:03.”
The day that began after the night that never ended started badly.
Sleepless, he left his house in Cambridge, Mass., at 7 a.m. for the flight to New York. In the airport, on a lounge chair, he discovered a Boston Globe profile of himself that wounded him deeply.
O’Brien, the Globe reported, had “boasted” about his plans never to write another novel. “That hurt me so much,” O’Brien says, a sudden gust of woe blowing through him like a child’s hurt, as sad and small as his excitements are sudden and large. “That really hurt. I’m not boasting. It’s sad, giving up something that’s been my whole life. That really hurt me.”
Now, in the back of the limo, he says that somewhere between Boston and New York he realized he was all out of his anti-depressant medicine, a derivative of Prozac. He wants to get a prescription filled somewhere. How will he feel without it? “I don’t know. We’ll see.” How did he feel with it? Did it make him feel more whole, more like himself? “I don’t know. I can’t tell.”
It’s almost 1 p.m. In a few minutes, O’Brien will go on WNYC, New York’s public radio station, for an hour-long interview. In a broadcast world peopled by self-important men in suits, O’Brien is dressed, as always, like a 10-year- old boy.
Except for his silver wire-rims and the gray hairs curling out from under his red-and-white Cincinnati Reds baseball cap, he could be mistaken for a Little Leaguer sitting on a dugout bench. Tattered blue jeans, wrinkled red work shirt, Nikes with the guts oozing out. He’s tossing a red-and-white matchbook up and down in his palm like a baseball.
He craves a cup of coffee, but there’s none to be had. He pulls nervously on a cigarette, edgy. His assistant offers him a slice of pizza. No thanks.
On the air, he is accommodating, even shilling for the public radio station’s fund-raising campaign. Afterward, he blows out of the studio steaming about “a bunch of stupid questions.”
Everyone keeps asking, O’Brien laments, about Vietnam, failed policy and politics, the things of combat. “People ask me, ‘Why do you keep writing about war?’ That’s like asking Updike why he keeps writing about suburbs, or Shakespeare why he keeps writing king stories. I don’t write about war. We’re all writing about the same thing.
“I’m writing stories to squeeze your heart.”
In the Lake of the Woods is the story of a Vietnam vet who loses his woman and everything he values because awful secrets he can’t suppress and terrible mistakes he can’t redeem coil out of the past.
But most everyone who meets O’Brien these days seems more interested in another, sadder story: the story of Tim O’Brien himself. A Vietnam vet who loses his woman and everything he values because of terrible mistakes he can’t redeem.
Everyone wants to know, O’Brien says, which parts of his novels, so achingly realistic and heart-breaking, are from his own life. He often dodges the question. “My own story doesn’t matter,” he says. “Someday I’ll be dead and you’ll be dead and we’ll all be dead and what will be left will be the novel.”
That’s the story that counts, he says. “Someday 200 years from now I hope a young girl will go into a library and pick up The Things They Carried and she’ll know, that’s what it was like.”
Earlier this month he wrote in the New York Times Magazine of his journey back to Vietnam to exorcise 20-year-old ghosts, his failed love affair with a younger woman who broke his heart, and his eight years of depression and longings to swallow enough little yellow pills to make the pain go away.
He gives no easy answers in his fiction, was coy about the sources and roots of his pain even in his New York Times confessional. So he is not about to simply turn the key and unlock his life, not now.
“People are fascinated by mystery. Life doesn’t happen in neat endings,” he says. “Where’s your first girfriend today?” he repeats several times during the day. “Where is she living, who is she with? Is she happily married? Is she dead?”
His first girlfriend, he tells you, is dead. He carries the memory of her, a 9-year-old girl. They had only one date, 39 years ago in Worthington, Minn., on a double date with his parents. They went to see a movie, The Man Who Never Was. She died before she turned 10. He brought her back to life in The Things They Carried. “In a story . . . the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world,” he wrote. On their only date Tim was speechless in the presence of her beauty, her dark eyes and hair, the lovely red cap she always wore. He didn’t know she wore it because her hair was falling out. He remembers bicycling to her house to give her flowers shortly before she died, in fifth grade, from a brain tumor.
In Worthington, O’Brien’s father was an insurance salesman. His mother was a teacher. Just as war can shatter in a man, or a woman, the easy possibilities of time, the faith in the next moment, so can childhood. Either can give a 48-year-old man a nervous look about him, as if he is not sure if you will like him, or what will happen next.
How this might have happened to O’Brien he’s not saying right now. ”Nothing happened that dramatic in my childhood,” he says.
He went to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., graduating in 1968. He was president of the student government, a war protestor. Then, suddenly, he was an infantryman in the U.S. Army, Vietnam, in 1969 and 1970. The courageous choice, given his feelings about the war, was Canada, O’Brien says now. “But in the end I could not bear the prospect of rejection,” he has written, “by my family, my country, my friends, my home town . . . the loss of love. . . . I was a coward. I went to Vietnam.”
He came home with a Purple Heart, then went to graduate school in government at Harvard, but never finished his dissertation. He had something else to write about. “The war made me a writer . . . and I’ve been writing ever since. . . . I’d never written for therapy, or any of that stuff. It was just that the stories were so wonderful.”
Years ago, O’Brien said the war had left him no demons; now he isn’t so sure. He has been in psychotherapy for eight years now, he says. He is separated from Ann, his wife of 17 years. He is apart, too, from Kate, the younger woman who persuaded him to travel with her to his old haunts in Vietnam.
In June, four months after coming home from Vietnam with Kate, he wrote this in his diary: “Last night suicide was on my mind. Not whether, but how. Tonight it will be on my mind again. Now it’s 4 a.m. . . . The sleeping pills have not worked. I sit in my underwear at this unblinking fool of a computer and try to wrap words around a few horrid truths. I returned to Vietnam with a woman whose name is Kate, whom I adored and have since lost. She’s with another man, seven blocks away. This I learned yesterday afternoon. My own fault, Kate would say, and she would be mostly right. . . . Not that it matters. For me, with one eye on these smooth yellow pills, the world must be written about as it is or not written about at all.”
Four months later, O’Brien says he is better now, over that suicidal summer, not healed but healing.
He’s dreaming of writing about the world as it is, nonfiction stories like the one in the Times. He got a letter 14 years ago from a woman who nearly married a Tim O’Brien impersonator; she called off the wedding only after seeing the real Tim O’Brien’s photograph on the back of one of his novels and realizing her husband-to-be was a fraud. The real Tim O’Brien wants to find the faux one and get his story.
When he talks about writing about the world as it is in reality, his story and essay ideas all involve deception, the sorcery of storytelling, the tragedy of mistakes and hidden truths. In other words, a lot like the world as he imagined it to be.
When the tour ends, he’s planning to take his parents, in their 80s, to Las Vegas for a wedding anniversary. “That’s something I never would have done when I was obsessed with writing well, writing nine hours a day, seven days a week.” That was his schedule for six years on In the Lake of the Woods.
He has produced three Vietnam novels, and it’s enough. Now, he wants to work on his golf game. Move to the country and get a dog. Try to fall in love. Have a child. Try to be happy.
The man hailed by critics as a genius of the heart, who longed to write the great American novel, aims now for a more difficult goal: to learn how to sleep through the night.
PHOTO (2) 1. On a tour to promote “In the Lake of the Woods,” his new novel, Tim O’Brien made a Philadelphia stop on Friday, talking and reading at Borders
Record Number: 9402280387
Copyright (c) 1994 The Philadelphia Inquirer