Last Updated on September 2, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1586
O'Brien, Tim 1946–
O'Brien is an American novelist and a former national affairs reporter for The Washington Post.
[If I Die in a Combat Zone] is the autobiography of a foot-soldier who survived Vietnam. It doesn't aim to be in any sense definitive; it is casual and impressionistic and unfolds through a series of snapshots from Induction to (Very Honourable) Discharge. A strange aura surrounds it: you feel that you are in the presence of someone exceptional, for O'Brien is young, handsome, intelligent, sensitive and brave. On top of this he is a fine writer.
He finds himself in uniform and in action through what he describes as 'sleepwalking default', for though he is a reluctant soldier and morally opposed to the war, he drifts into it out of deference to his family and home town. He makes some abortive plans to dodge to Scandinavia, but somehow he does not follow them through, and it is this very mixture of principle and indecision which makes his account so convincing. He's not a Hawk or a Dove, but a man in between, and he approaches the whole experience of training and combat with a rather passive, but essentially open mind. There is however a certain ambiguity in his attitude; coupled with his conscientious aversion to the war and army life is a sort of young man's hunger for Experience and the desire to prove himself, not in the sense of collecting Vietnamese heads, but in a Hemingwayesque test of the resources of one's character.
In a style which is lucid, relaxed, razor-sharp and consciously dispassionate, the wasteland of Vietnam unreels before us. Without fuss or rhetoric he registers the arbitrary deaths and futile suffering of soldiers and citizens alike and his descriptions are more powerful because of their reserve. It is a curiously impersonal war: the foot-soldier is fighting an almost invisible enemy and is supported by the pushbutton, dial-a-bomber resources of the US. It is also in many ways an unreal war, and the book is impressive and convincing both because it shows what war is like and because it concentrates on one individual trying to survive the fighting with some kind of integrity. (p. 24)
Chris Waters, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 4, 1974.
[Although] If I Die in a Combat Zone … is in novel form the author is also the main character and narrator. "If I Die" is not a fully mature book; O'Brien writes with the consciousness of a young college graduate. (Names and quotations from philosophy and literature occur frequently). But this youthful earnestness, which never turns into self-pity, enhances rather than detracts from the work. Furthermore, the actual structure of the book (O'Brien moves easily backwards and forwards in time over the three years with which he is concerned) is most impressive as is the style. The dialogue is sharp and lively; the narrative portions are slightly ironic rather than self-aggrandizing…. All that the best journalists have written about the War is dramatised here…. But most of all, O'Brien conveys the sense of being trapped, of enforced participation…. Though it is probably correct to dwell most on America's role as imperialist aggressor, we should not allow ourselves to be shamed (and some leftists—and others—do express easy, comprehensive anti-American sentiments) into keeping silence about the pain of those who were involved. O'Brien's book deserves respect; his reduction as a man concerned with morality, integrity and courage, warrants anger. (pp. 49-50)
Elaine Glover, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 15, No. 3, 1974.
Is it possible to read The Sun Also Rises too often? Sad and charming and funny, young in just the right way, unbesmirched by what makes so much other Hemingway foolish or wrong, it retains its magic the tenth time through. Yet Tim O'Brien has read it too often, let it sink into him too deeply. Though set in a town in the Arrowhead country of Minnesota, Northern Lights gives us [The Sun Also Rises]….
Which is a shame, because O'Brien seems to have firsthand interests and sense of places, and, in one long stretch, shows himself to be a real writer, not a ventriloquist. Interestingly, he stops writing like Hemingway where others often start, when Harvey and Perry leave the ski races and, at Harvey's insistence, set out to ski home through the woods. They are brothers, the sons of a mad north woods minister, and Harvey probably invents the trip to force Perry into a vulnerability he would never reveal to their father, and Perry accepts it as a challenge. But Harvey loses their way, then gets sick, and they run out of food during a blizzard. The terms of potential combat dissipate into fleeting attempts to know what it means to be brothers facing annihilation. Freed from having to write much dialogue, O'Brien is free of Hemingway for more than a hundred pages, and the result is splendid clarity that is never nature writing, never heroics, never conscious understatement. Harvey is lousy with map and compass; he has brought too little food, but plenty of matches. O'Brien keeps his head through all this, shows that under stress discoveries will be made, but that getting along, and finding out what to do next, are as important to tenuous loving relationships as to survival.
O'Brien even assays that hardest of tasks, a prolonged telling of what happens after the high drama. To be sure, he fumbles about, inventing too many ways to show that the more adventurous Harvey cannot learn as much from adventure as can the introspective and withdrawing Perry. But it is good that he tries to offer more than the bittersweet conversation of Jake and Brett in Madrid. Northern Lights is too literary too much of the time, but fine when it is not. (p. 31)
Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), November 13, 1975.
There is a refrain in this surprisingly beautiful book [Northern Lights] that recurrently reminds us that what we are studying is "partly a combination of human beings and events, partly a genetic fix, an alchemy of circumstance." Granted there is nothing that is otherwise; but what O'Brien manages to do is to place his interlocking characters so deeply in their family, their time and place, their bleak lumber town islanded in forest, at some moment during the Vietnam war … that his book could stand very honorably as an unsensational and sensitive introduction to American "provincial" life for any foreigner who wants one. Yet it is never for an instant sociology: all the tracks lead inward….
Page after page the petty torment and irritation, a vague chafing of dream against reality, continues, and it is never melodramatic but perfectly situated in tone between the inconsequential life of Sawmill Landing and the harsh eye of an eternal sky and the pitiless weather….
Halfway through Northern Lights the [protagonists] confront that weather…. And in the end, [they survive] moments of terror and of radiant transcendence (rendered by O'Brien with a kind of open-heartedness, pitched higher than Hemingway's but respectful of the same integrities of nature, in an amplitude of style that refuses to be self-consciously ironic or self-denigrating)…. (p. 27)
O'Brien sees heroism as relative, thus simple. The words of [one character] describe it as a mature, perhaps, even a divine resignation: What cannot be escaped must be endured, and if it must be endured it might as well be confronted…. The book is so well-grounded in the humble daily movements of these intensely ordinary people that their triumphs are subtle, entirely dependent on our angle of vision under the huge sky. (p. 28)
Rosellen Brown, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 7, 1976.
[Northern Lights is] … about the relationship between two men in a bleak and frozen landscape…. Tim O'Brien's treatment of the crisis in the lives of the Perry brothers is … heavily naturalistic … [and as] a study of relationships, it is not much cop—chiefly, perhaps, because the characters in their imprisoning naturalism are a lot less large than life or literature require. But the description of the epic ski-trek, which makes up the central third of the book, is excellently done, slipping in and out between impressionism and straight narrative and very excitingly conveying the reality—almost the reality—of men past the end of their endurance. (p. 422)
Neil Hepburn, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Neil Hepburn), April 1, 1976.
Northern Lights is … indigestible, as if [Mr O'Brien] is having a crack at raising the great American novel fifty years after it sank. He came to notice by fictionalising his war service in Vietnam but the sharp focus his experiences gave to him then has now scattered in a long narrative about trekking through the pantheist snowscapes of Minnesota. Two brothers, one physical, one spiritual, try to act out the demands of their dead Lutheran father, in the course of which they grow up and discover that they are not so incompatible after all. Rugged isn't the word, not to mention purgatorial, yet while understanding Mr O'Brien's need to wash his system through after being exposed to South East Asia it is not as elementally nourishing as one would imagine to participate in his great American search for hygiene, spiritual and physical: hard on the feet and only platitudes in sight. (p. 22)
Duncan Fallowell, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 3, 1976.
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