This is not a straightforward book in any sense. We begin in the aftermath of a disastrous senate campaign. John lost the campaign, badly. It was so bad that he lost the votes of his own party by a wide margin even. We’re also meant to understand that something happened to swing the campaign, one that he had been winning. He’s young, handsome, a veteran. He and his wife Kathy have retreated to the Lake of the Woods to lick their wounds and decide what’s next. That is, until Kathy goes missing.
From here, the book takes a number of turns. For one, the book is not presented in a straight narrative form. A huge section of the novel is written in the subjunctive, telling us very much from the beginning that there will be certain things we won’t know. In addition, large sections of the novel are presented in a series of quotations: from John’s campaign manager, from the official reports and testimony from a Vietnam war crimes commission, from the history of George Custer, and other sources.
What becomes clearer is that John’s war record has been picked over and exposed for the voters, and that this cost him the election. In one moment Tim O’Brien as narrator (if not author, he’s tricky), says something to the effect of: I know exactly how ___________ could have happened, meaning some specific war atrocities. And the implication is that it happened to this person because it happened, and didn’t happen to him, because it didn’t. This is discomforting because Americans believe in their own virtues as a nation, and through the actions of their military members by extension. War crimes are aberrations, not products, despite what and how much evidence comes out. Mostly the novel is a reminder that trauma isn’t just something that is inflicted on someone, but experienced. And as other recent books have reminded us, causing trauma also causes trauma.