(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In July, July, the 1969 graduates of Darton Hall College come together in July, 2000, one year late for their thirtieth reunion. During their college years the United States faced conflicts between liberals and conservatives on questions of race, gender, and the Vietnam War. From an omniscient narrator the reader learns of each reunion member’s early ideals and dreams and what has become of each. Class member Jan Heubner’s early remark, “Maybe that’s the trick. Never hope,” warns the reader of what is to come.

As was true of O’Brien’s earlier novels, such as Going After Cacciato(1978) and The Things They Carried (1990), this novel’s narrative structure is nonlinear, allowing O’Brien to shift from past to present, from story piece to story piece. Some events stray from realism. However, the reunion story as it interweaves with stories from the past is told in chronological order. Throughout the text, dialogue shifts easily from coffee-klatch and barroom small talk and stale clichés to bitter humor and grim honesty. As always, part of O’Brien’s style is sprinkling worn clichés into absurd situations. When, in a story from the past, Spook Spinelli asks her first husband to remain married to her while she marries another man, O’Brien writes: “He . . . understood that relationships require fine- tuning, . . . that he wasn’t losing a wife but gaining an in-law.”

Because of their number, their whiny and somewhat intoxicated voices, and their gossip about each other’s weaknesses and failures, the characters are not easy to like, much less to identify with. Yet this odd bunch stay through the reunion and somehow come together, looking into each other but looking more into themselves and, eventually, finding voices in which to speak the secrets of their deepest selves. Although these secrets contain some absurdity, they also contain depth. As the characters tell all, each moves toward some wisdom. The stories all center in broken or rocky relationships, past, present, and future. Perhaps O’Brien is saying that relationships, always risky, are the hope of humanity, or at least what bring about survival. Somehow the characters understand this.

The first chapter introduces the novel’s characters gathered at the reunion dance. It soon becomes clear that in the thirty years between 1969 and 1999, and even into 2000, the characters’ lives revolved around war—specifically the Vietnam War—and dismemberment. Some of the dismemberments revealed at the reunion are physical, some mental or emotional. Two members of the class have died, and that reality runs as an undertone in the dialogue; near the end of the reunion the events around one of these deaths are told to all, but the narrator reveals the second death story only to the reader.

The stories of David Todd, Dorothy Stier, Billy McMann, and Marla Dempsey, those most affected by war and dismemberment, carry much of the meaning central to the novel. Todd’s is a Vietnam story, and the writing style is reminiscent of O’Brien’s earlier Vietnam tales where the narrator mixes grim humor with grim horror, bringing the reader closer to the reality of a soldier’s life in Vietnam than any reportage. Todd voluntarily enlisted in the army after his junior year at Darton Hall College. He was wounded on July 16, 1969. Alone, severely wounded, barely alive, he moves in and out of a delirium of pain and morphine. With Todd is Johnny Evers, a voice from a transistor radio. This voice taunts Todd, goads him; it never comforts him. The voice knows everything and can even give Todd the choice between life and death, telling him, after four days, that he may either stay and die quickly or live and be in for a life of physical, mental, and emotional pain. Todd chooses life; he retains his hope, primarily the hope that eventually Marla Dempsey will marry him and they will live happily ever after. Sending in the rescue helicopter, the radio voice mocks Todd’s decision but calls him brave. For Todd, survival of Vietnam and the dismemberment it caused is possible, but at a great price.

As ghastly as Todd’s war wound and war experience were, it is the aftermath—the post-traumatic stress in which he hears the...

(The entire section is 1730 words.)