But this too is true: stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, too, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They’re all dead. But in a story, which is kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.
— “The Lives of the Dead” (213)
This was a re-read for me and in the many years between the time I first read this mix of novel/ short story collection/memoir back in 1990 and now, I had forgotten what a DAMM BEAUTIFUL WRITER Tim O’Brien is. These stories of war, death, and friendship haunt you after you read them, just as O’Brien is haunted by what he experienced in Vietnam. He tells stories about the men in his military company and stories about his own experiences but one wonders what the truth really is. Are the stories he tells of others actually his? Are his stories actually the stories of others? Does it matter?
The title story from this collection is often anthologized and the long list of things, both physical and metaphorical, that soldiers carry (and then sometimes discard along the way) is heartbreaking. The story that I remember the most strongly from reading this before was the description of one soldier, returned home, driving around his hometown, around and around and around, as night falls. He wants to talk about his experiences but can’t find someone to listen.
There were two stories that hit me harder this time around. One, “On the Rainy River,” is the story of a young “Tim O’Brien” whose number comes up right after he graduates from college. He spends the summer, working in a slaughterhouse and debating whether he should head to war or run away to Canada. One day he simply drives north and ends up staying for a time with an old man living in a cabin near the border. It is up there, working side by side with the old man, that O’Brien makes a final choice.
In the final story of the collection, “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien shifts back and forth between his memories of friendship/romance with a young girl, Linda, who died of cancer when he was nine, and his thoughts about how in remembering and writing about his friends who died in the war, he is bringing them to life. You realize that this story captures the point of the whole piece—by telling and retelling these stories, O’Brien is trying to save himself.