The Vietnam War was America’s longest and most divisive conflict to date. It helped to define a generation and provoked great soul searching on the part of American youth and elders alike. Even today, decades after America retired from the area, many questions remain to be answered. One way of dealing with all this confusion is to write a collection of war stories in the spirit of fiction, and to tie them together in an experience of sharing, both with the characters themselves and by engaging the reader through these stories. This is apparently the goal of Tim O’Brien, combat veteran and expert storyteller. He more than succeeds in this endeavor.
He employs several means to achieve these ends. One of his ingenious approaches is to slide back and forth between past and present through both his personal recollections and through the characters he creates. In this effort, he employs riveting dialogue and produces many vivid personalities. While many come to mind as memorable, two in particular seem to be outstanding: Mary Anne Bell and Norman Bowker.
In the course of his writing, O’Brien turns Mary Anne into one of contemporary literature’s startling characters. One of his fellow soldiers, Mark Fossie, manages to bring his sweetheart (Mary Anne) from Ohio to Vietnam, an unusually novel experience. Originally the girl next door type, Mary Anne is transformed in a few short weeks from hometown honey into a seasoned patrol veteran. She boldly links up with some Green Berets and starts out on some bloodcurdling missions with them, the ban on women in combat then in effect notwithstanding. In the process she soon abandons all previous inhibitions and even begins to redefine her current relationship with Mark Fossie, questioning their marriage plans and entire postwar agenda.
Mary Anne, like O’Brien himself, is both repelled by the war and somehow exhilarated by it. In this, she is not so different from her entire generation and all who participated in this bizarre and protracted conflict. Reporting back from one such mission, she informs Mark Fossie that “it’s not that bad” (111). Her combat outing with the Green Berets has apparently converted her to a night warrior, and she even begins bringing back souvenirs of her exploits. She is way out ahead of her time, as judged even by today’s standards. Shortly thereafter, O’Brien makes her simply disappear, without being heard from again. Her mysterious yet not unexpected exit somehow seems to mirror the vague and queasy world of the war itself. Rat, a comrade in Alpha Company, thought the girl was “still alive” (115). In the development of this character, O’Brien also shows a keen grasp of the power of irony.
Norman Bowker, the other prominent character, seems at times to be almost an alter ego of O’Brien himself. His recollections of the war while driving somewhat aimlessly around a lake slide in and out of the past and present. For example, he reflects on the nature of courage, and finds it to be a matter of relative and not absolute degrees (147). The lake drive seems to offer him some solace, and unwinds his tense and haunted mind. He again drifts back to how his father seemed obsessed with his winning medals, as though this were just another uncomplicated American war. He is also guilt ridden over the death of Kiowa, one of the most admirable men of Alpha Company (156). His letters to O’Brien seem to reflect this guilt.
Like Mary Anne Bell, Norman meets an untimely fate after the war. He seems to be normal, but one routine day, he hangs himself from a water pipe at the local YMCA. His tragic end is again not entirely unexpected, given the complex postwar adjustment process, but again demonstrates O’Brien’s command of irony. Norman’s letters to O’Brien illustrate the importance of sharing stories in the healing process. They also convey O’Brien’s own feelings of guilt, confusion and emptiness with regard to his participation in this war.
O’Brien’s contribution to contemporary literature is hard to overestimate. While he has obviously cornered the market on recent Vietnam era literature, he seems to rise into the front ranks of today’s writers with his rich character development and use of irony as well. The result is an attempt at closure, but also an acknowledgment that the war will remain open to interpretation for years to come.