Tim O'Brien has a problem: His fiction about the Vietnam War has made him famous. Worse things could befall an author, but it's an injustice to praise O'Brien for only his war writing when he's really one of the best contemporary American authors, period.
True, O'Brien, who now teaches creative writing at Southwest Texas State University, won the National Book Award for Going After Cacciato, a dreamlike novel about a soldier who struggles with the desire to simply drop his gun and walk away from battle. And the author's most anthologized work is the half-autobiographical, half-fictionalized account of his experiences as an infantryman, The Things They Carried. That book brought O'Brien critical acclaim, but it also caused critics to pigeonhole him as a niche writer.
"I've never thought of myself as a Vietnam writer, per se," he insists. In fact, war is not the focus of his last two books. Tomcat in Love is a funny novel about a womanizer, and his most recent, July, July, is about the reunion of the fictional Darton Hall College class of 1969. Still, veterans have prominent roles in both works.
"It's a little bit like Toni Morrison," O'Brien explains. "African-Americans and the African-American experience always seem to find its way into her books, in the same way Vietnam always seems to work its way into my books in one way or another. But at the same time, I'm sure if you asked her, 'Do you write about black people?' she'd look at you funny."
Though the author has written extensively about Vietnam, he has never felt that it was war he was writing about. Nor does he consider his experience in Vietnam to be the most influential event of his life. "None of the books are about bombs and bullets, politics and military maneuvers," he says. "It's more about the ordinary human heart and the pressure than the war itself Vietnam is more of a backdrop or context for it all."
For O'Brien, what it all comes down to, in life and work, is love. The author's own yearning for the love of his parents, girlfriend and hometown kept him from fleeing to Canada when he was drafted in 1969. As he's fond of saying, "I was a coward. I went to Vietnam."
Each of his books has a different take on love and war. July, July examines the lives of a group of women who experienced Vietnam from the home front. More than 30 years later, at a college reunion, they reflect on the paths they've chosen. A suburban Republican mom finds herself battling breast cancer and questioning her decision not to follow a draft-dodging lover to Canada years ago. And an aging vixen, who has two husbands and seeks to include a third in her odd arrangement, finds her powers of seduction finally waning.
In other words, the issues O'Brien's characters grapple with, then and now, are affairs of the heart.