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 of order on his life in Vietnam by creating the story of soldiers who track a deserter from Vietnam to Paris. The line between fact and imagination blurs as O’Brien examines such recurrent themes as the nature of truth and the exploration of possibilities.
The Nuclear Age was perceived to be a strange, almost satiric book, and it was not well received. The main character, William Cowlings, is a reluctant peace activist who becomes a uranium speculator and then digs an immense bomb shelter against his fear of nuclear war. As in Northern Lights, William’s final recognitions have to do less with war than with love.
Of the highly acclaimed The Things They Carried, a collection of stories about Vietnam, some critics suggest that O’Brien here invented a new literary form that alternates objectivity with impressionism. What really happened becomes less important than what could have happened. A character named Tim O’Brien appears in some of these stories, but unlike the author, he has a ten-year-old daughter. O’Brien insists that his stories and characters are imaginary; they have, however, the emotional ring of truth.
The next novel, In the Lake of the Woods, which met with mixed reviews, concerns John Wade, a Minnesota politician, who loses his bid for governor after the discovery that he had participated twenty-five years earlier in the massacre of four hundred Vietnamese villagers at My Lai. Wade retreats to a secluded area in the North Woods with his wife, but when she suddenly disappears, questions arise, including the possibility that he has murdered her. The book mingles chapters of philosophical inquiry, chapters of evidence, and excerpts from the court-martial of Lieutenant William Calley. For this book O’Brien received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for best historical novel from the Society of American Historians.
Divorced after about seventeen years of marriage, O’Brien published an intensely personal essay, “The Vietnam in Me,” in which he describes a visit to the area where he had once been stationed. That article contains all the ambivalence, regret, and passion of his fiction.
In 1998, O’Brien tried his hand at a comic novel with Tomcat in Love. Thomas H. Chippering, a Vietnam War veteran, linguistic professor, and womanizer, has lost his wife to another man and becomes obsessed with getting her back. He spies on her and her new husband while plotting revenge. Vietnam, his recurring theme, appears in the form of a squad of Green Berets who may be seeking revenge on Thomas themselves.
In the 2002 novel 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 them.
Tim O’Brien has received awards from the Vietnam Veterans of America, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.