A very short chapter in his memoir of service in Vietnam, The Things They Carried, “The Dentist” is author Tim O’Brien’s description of the rest-and-recreation facility to which his unit was sent for medical and dental care as well as for some much-needed relaxation – to the extent that one can truly relax near an area dubbed the “Pocket Rocket” for its regular use as a staging site for enemy rocket attacks on the nearby airfield at Chu Lai. “The Dentist” is also the story of Curt Lemon, an eventually-killed fellow soldier whose demeanor and actions were more indicative of somebody very fearful but trying very hard to present a brave front. As O’Brien describes him, Lemon “had a tendency to play the tough soldier role, always posturing, always puffing himself up . . .” But, when it was his turn to be examined by the dentist in what O’Brien describes as “a very primitive setup,” the “tough soldier” fainted from fear.
To the extent that “The Dentist” has a theme, it would have to be the ironic nature of some soldiers who present false fronts, either to impress their fellow soldiers, or in an effort to convince themselves that they aren’t paralyzed with fear. Such was the case with Curt Lemon. But “The Dentist” is another story, and that is the rest-and-recreation area where the story is set. Whereas much of The Things They Carried takes place on patrols through dense jungle or tall elephant grass or in the myriad streams and rivers that criss-cross Vietnam – the sites where ambushes are established or, conversely, used by the enemy to ambush Americans, where firefights and helicopter landings occur, etc. – the visit to the dentist occurs in an area with “white beaches and palm trees and friendly little villages,” and which “had the feel of a resort.” This chapter, the others, takes place in an area of operations that doubles as vacationland.
The tone of “The Dentist” is largely the same as used throughout The Things They Carried. O’Brien’s writing is descriptive, ironic, humorous, and frightening. The foreboding that the stories in this book provide – in “The Dentist,” prior to launching into the story of his colleague’s false bravado at the “resort,” O’Brien begins with this: “When Curt Lemon was killed, I found it hard to mourn” – lends a profound gravity to the proceedings, which is completely unsurprising for a story of war told at such a personal level. Early in the book, O’Brien briefly introduces us to Curt Lemon by referencing the sight of “Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree.” O’Brien’s tone throughout is a matter-of-fact as an author can possibly be, a product no doubt of the process of learning to live with the certainty that somebody around you is going to be killed in a very violent manner with little or no notice, and that somebody could be you.
The Things They Carried, as noted, is a fictionalized memoir. It is told in the first person as memoirs by definition do. It is Tim O’Brien’s story – to a greater or lesser extent – and the first-person narrative is the only appropriate style that he could have employed. It is his observation of a place and a period of time that few, if any, who were never there could hope to describe.