The Things They Carried – Review

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990: Mariner. ISBN 978-0-618-70641-9)

I tend to write large. This may be a sign of insecurity or confirmation of my verbose nature. When I say large, I mean “big”; as in 100,000 plus word novels. My shortest work is my novel-in-progress, Laman’s River, a murder mystery. It’s present configuration has it weighing in right around 80,000 words; A slender volume by Munger standards. Great writing doesn’t have to be War and Peace or East of Eden or Cloudsplitter; all very thick reads. Great writing can be slender and still carry a wallop. The Things They Carried by Minnesotan Tim O’Brien is one of those meager offerings that proves size doesn’t matter.

Weighing in at just over 230 pages, O’Brien’s novel/memoir (really linked stories based upon his own service as an infantryman in Vietnam) Things is a remarkable, exceptional piece of prose. Part autobiography, part war novel, part writer’s memoir, there’s a reason that it won O’Brien acclaim and a Pulitzer nomination: It’s one great book. This passage is just a sampling of the fine writing you’ll find on every page, in every paragraph, throughout the book:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs. wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 12 and 18 pounds…Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April…

I can’t understand why it took me twenty years to read this novel. Maybe it was my experience reading O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, which, though not a bad book, was more in the vein of genre fiction and not “my cup of tea”. Or maybe I was smitten with jealousy at all the attention O’Brien garnered when this book was released in 1990 (just as I was beginning to work on my first book, The Legacy). Whatever. This is our generation’s Red Badge of Courage. Read it and understand what young men go through when old men send them off to fight. It’s an essential book, listed by the New York Times as one of the most influential books of the  20th century. 5 stars out of 5.

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