In The Lake of the Woods, by Tim O’Brien

The Last Hemingway Hero

 John Wade, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, suffers a landslide defeat in a Senate race. He and his wife Kathy retire to a lakeside cabin in Minnesota’s north woods, ostensibly to regroup, renew promises, reaffirm their love. Something has gone wrong with their lives, of which the landslide may just be a symbol. The solicitation and caution they show each other suggest he’s had an affair. Within days, Kathy vanishes. John draws suspicion because he seems so unemotional, so taciturn. Why did he wait two days to report her absence? Compounding problems is his heavy drinking.

It turns out that what has precipitated Wade’s Senate defeat was not an affair but something else dredged up from the past — the massacre at My Lai. Wade was a soldier in Lt. William Calley’s Charlie Company that slaughtered a village of women, children and unarmed elderly men. It is a secret he’s kept from the public, from his wife, and even from himself. And although what Wade recalls of the incident suggests he may be less culpable than others, it doesn’t alter his guilt.

Through various characters, author Tim O’Brien conjures several scenarios for what might have happened to Kathy the night she disappeared: she went out for a walk and just kept going; she went for a ride in the boat and got lost, or else rode to Canada and started a new life; Wade killed her, cut up her body and disposed of the parts in the vicinity of the dock; Wade killed her and buried her body in the lake. There are other, happier possibilities: Wade eventually met her on an island somewhere; they started their lives over again in Europe. O’Brien asks the reader, What do you want?

O’Brien is best know for Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1979, and The Things They Carried, published in 1990, that also drew from the author’s war experience. Less known are his two non-war novels, Northern Lights and The Nuclear Age. (His first book was If I Die in a Combat Zone.) In his newest book, O’Brien attempts to balance the two realities of soldier and civilian. He incorporates elements of mystery, metafiction, psychological thriller and research paper complete with footnotes. Several chapters on the novel consist of quotes collected by an unnamed narrator who is trying to piece together the puzzle. We learn at the end of the book that the narrator was also in Vietnam, and that he is writing “this book.” O’Brien quotes freely from historical sources, biographies of American political leaders, books about post-traumatic stress disorder, and books of magic tricks.

As a child Wade had been obsessed with magic, spending hours in the basement perfecting tricks. Magic becomes the ruling metaphor of his life, closely akin to denial or repression. He tricks himself into believing that his alcoholic father loves him more than he does, and when his father hangs himself in the garage, Wade tricks himself into believing it didn’t happen. With a mirror he could envision his father still alive, walking into his room, saying the loving things he’d never said. In college he spies of Kathy and revels when she tells him, “It’s weird how well you know me.” In Vietnam his fellow soldiers know him only as Sorcerer, so when he pulls an office position late in his tour, he tries a disappearing act by removing his name from all documents that would place him in Charlie Company and at My Lai.

In several ways this novel invokes the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, and it seems O’Brien is not unaware of this. Compare the opening lines of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (whose sacrificed female is another Kathy — Catherine) to In the Lake of the Woods:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. (Hemingway)

In September, after the primary, they rented an old yellow cottage in the timber at the edge of Lake of the Woods. There were many trees, mostly pine and birch, and there was the dock and the boathouse and the narrow dirt road that came through the forest and ended in polished gray rocks at the shore below the cottage. (O’Brien)

With the indirect opening, emphasis on setting, references to nature, the inordinate number of prepositions, and the use of the coordinating conjunction and, the prose could be Papa’s. But unlike the redemption that nature offered in Hemingway’s early work, In Our Time, the lakeside retreat here borders an uninhabited wilderness as vast as Wade’s soul. John and Kathy’s lives wither like the house plants on which Wade pours boiling water.

As in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, O’Brien uses war as a backdrop to a story about two people, one of whom has suffered a blow. Wade’s character is cut from the same cloth of American white males as Hemingway’s: tight-lipped, suffering silently. For Wade, as for many veterans, the fighting lies just below the surface despite their predilection for segmenting that time into a separate realm.

This novel won’t let us separate war from life.

In earlier books, O’Brien’s best writing conveyed the perceptions of sensitive men in wartime. There’s the specific detail of an enemy soldier’s “smiling at some secret thought” just before the narrator lobs a grenade at his feet in “Ambush” (from The Things They Carried), a piece that made real the sense of how one never totally recovers after killing someone. “Calling Home,” from Going After Cacciato, communicates soldiers’ homesickness through the banal chit-chat of a phone call home: “‘Who?’ she keeps saying. ‘Who?‘ Real clear. Like in the next. . . And Petie! He’s in high school now — you believe that?'” In this book, some of the best writing consists of dialogue between angry men in conflict, their feelings left under the surface. Whether it’s the men of Charlie Company assuring Calley they’re on his side despite their private misgivings, or Wade’s sarcasm when he responds to a sheriff’s deputy who’s sure Wade disposed of his wife in the lake. Other inspired writing occurs in dramatic scenes such as in the following passage, set in My Lai:

Sorcerer uttered meaningless sounds –“No,” he said, then after a second he said, “Please” — and then the sunlight sucked him down a trail toward the center of the village, where he found burning hootches and brightly mobile figures engaged in murder. Simpson was killing children. PFC Weatherby was killing whatever he could kill. A row of corpses lay in the pink-to-purple sunshine along the trail — teenagers and old women and two babies and a young boy. Most were dead, some were almost dead. The dead lay very still. The almost-dead did twitching things until PFC Weatherby had occasion to reload and make them fully dead. The noise was fierce. No one was dying quietly. There were squeakings and chicken sounds.

Yet at times it seems that more writing is coming from the head than the heart. This is an idea book that juggles many issues: the experience of war, the psychology of denial and repression, the pervasiveness of deception, the nature of marriage relationships, the American ego, American politics. . . . O’Brien is after so much that of necessity he touches only the surface of many issues. At the end the unnamed narrator comes on and tries to tie things together, to say what it all means. There’s a note of desperation in the effort, but it’s the desperation of an author who has attempted more than most. And for that O’Brien deserves a medal.

This review appeared in the Boston Book Review in 1994.

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