William Timothy O’Brien is recognized as one of the strongest voices to emerge from the Vietnam War, the defining event of his life. He was born to an insurance salesman and a teacher, and when he was nine the family moved from Austin, Minnesota, to the small town of Worthington, “Turkey Capital of the World.” O’Brien studied political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, planning a career in the State Department. In his senior year, he was elected student-body president, and in 1968 he graduated summa cum laude with a full scholarship to Harvard. The Vietnam draft interrupted his plans.
O’Brien thought seriously of going to Canada to escape a war he did not believe in, but he could not face the disapproval of family and friends. Later he labeled himself a coward for not having acted on his beliefs. He served in the United States Army from 1968 to 1970, including one year as an infantryman in Vietnam. His memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, chronicles this period of his life and his ambivalence about it.
In 1970, O’Brien began doctoral studies at the Harvard School of Government and held two summer internships at The Washington Post. He married in 1973 and took a year’s leave of absence to report on national affairs for The Washington Post, a job that, as he said, taught him “the virtue of tenacity.” He dropped out of Harvard in 1976 after publishing his second book, the novel Northern Lights. The work, the story of two brothers in the woods of northern Minnesota, is a young man’s book, burdened by the legacy of Ernest Hemingway. Harvey, a Vietnam veteran, becomes ill on a cross-country ski trip, and Paul, his quiet brother, saves his life with ingenuity and craft. O’Brien’s own voice is apparent in the powerful details of their wilderness journey and in the description of Paul’s growing ability to love.
His third book, which is considered one of his best, won the National Book Award; two chapters, published as separate stories, earned O. Henry awards. Going After Cacciato is a brilliant and unclassifiable novel, in which Paul Berlin seeks to impose some kind...
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