There’s still a part of me that wants to close out Tim O’Brien’s catalog. There was once a part of me that REALLY wanted to. Like a lot of people I read The Things They Carried when I was young (about 20) and thought it was amazing. I still do. Then I read If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato and thought they were amazing. I still do. In the Lake of the Woods? It’s really good! Tomcat in Love? Oh no! And it fell off from there. I came down from the high and realized, like most writers, he’s got good and bad. And worst of all, he’s got mediocre. This book is mediocre. It attempts to capture some really interesting big ideas from post-Vietnam America and does to some extent, but at the same time, it falters in even more important ways. We begin with a man about to turn 50 digging a hole in his yard as a way to channel his paranoia about nuclear war and the 1960s into something seemingly productive. It’s 1995 for the record, though the book was written in 1985. This puts strain on his wife and family, and as those ties begins to unravel a little, he tells us about his brushes with radical past in college in the 1960s and beyond.
As the story unfolds, we find out that he was part of a Weather Underground kind of organization, got super close to terrorism and revolution, and then sold out or checked out. It has the issue a lot of books have when they talk about the 1960s in that it’s chock full of “THE SIXTIES” references that bloat what might be interesting ideas otherwise. Worse, it’s just not a very interesting novel.