Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: July, July, by Tim O'Brien

First Published on The Compulsive Reader.

Tim O'Brien has gained a well deserved reputation for his Viet Nam war fiction. Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried are two of the most compelling narratives to deal with the effects of that war on those condemned to fight it, indeed two of the most compelling narratives about the effects of any, and probably every, war.
Not content to be a one trick pony, O'Brien's new novel, July, July, marks his second attempt at exploring new territory. While not leaving the war behind completely, O'Brien here weaves it together with other elements as part of a larger tapestry. There is a Viet Nam veteran. There is the story of his ordeal on the banks of the Song Tra Ky. There is the picture of his life consumed by drugs, failed romance, and the loss of a leg. But this is only one of the stories of blighted lives and wasted promise.

In an interview (, O'Brien point out he as much interested in the fact that ordinary everyday life goes on even in the face of historical cataclysms. Those who didn't fight go on living. Yet in some sense, even from this perspective, the war may well be the two ton gorilla in the novel.

July, July uses the thirtieth reunion of Class of 1969 of Darton Hall College in Minnesota as a frame for individual stories focusing on critical moments in the past of ten of the celebrating alumni. Usually, after each story, the reader is brought back to the reunion for a glance at how these children of the war years have turned out. We see them before we know their individual stories, and we see them after; we see them singly, and we see them as part of the group. We see them as individuals, and we see them as representatives of an era. In a sense the hero of the novel is the Class of '69.

It takes a few pages to get beyond the confusion of which name goes with which character, but unless the author provides a general prologue in which each parades past to the tune of a lively character sketch, such confusion is inevitable. Yet since O'Brien deftly defines each with telling strokes--the pot bellied mop manufacturer, the alluring temptress with two husbands and a lover, the female minister fired from her pulpit for house breaking--the early confusion is kept to a manageable minimum.

As in any group some characters, some stories are more memorable than others. Everybody can't be the Wife of Bath. Dorothy Steir is a rock ribbed Republican with a pool and a house and a patio, trying to come to terms with a radical mastectomy. Ellie Abbot sneaks off for an affair only to have her companion drown in a lake while she watches from the shore. David Todd loses a leg in Viet Nam and a wife on Christmas morning ten years later.

July, July however is not simply a collection of stories set in a frame to keep them neatly in place a la Boccacio or the Arabian Nights. These are works in which it is the individual tale--the part, rather than the whole-- that is focus. July, July tries to knit stories and characters together so that the whole is something more than the sum of its parts.

Stories complement one another. If one character goes to war and wrecks his life, another runs off to Canada, and though he manages to avoid the war, becomes no less an emotional cripple. If they marry at all, they marry the wrong people. If they are successful in their careers, they find that success unfullfilling. No matter what they have, they always seem to want something else, more often than not something they cannot have.

Spook Spinelli, class tramp, is a good example. She has one husband, she wants another. She gets a second, she wants a lover. She gets him and she still comes to the reunion looking for something more. Marv Bertel, he of the mops and bellies, on the other hand, wants only one thing--Spook, and he's wanted her for thirty one years. Spook may never get what she wants because she is not really aware of what it is; Marv knows exactly what he wants, although one is tempted to wonder if he would be happy if he ever got it.

Still they could dream: "And then for some time they fantasized, taking turns at inventing a happy ending for themselves. . . .It had become the ninth day of July, Sunday ,just before three in the morning, a new age, a new century, and for both Marv Bertel and Spook Spinelli, the turbulent world of their youth had receded like some idle threat or long-lapsed promise. Nixon was dead. Westmoreland was in retirement. That war was over. Now there were new wars. But still, as with Spook and Marv and several million other survivors of their times, there would also be the essential renewing fantasy of splendid things to come." (pp, 318-319)

These "survivors of their times" come to the reunion looking for something of that splendid promise that never quite came. Some find it, not always where they expected, but find it nonetheless. Of course, whether what they find is something lasting is another question. Some go home as empty handed as they came.

July, 1969, as the author reminds us, was a year of miracles. There were the amazing Mets. There were men walking on the moon. It was a time when the world was all before us. The class of '69 was graduated into a world where anything and everything seemed possible. July, 2000, when they come together once again, that optimism seems little more than naive.

Even if you live in a house in the suburbs, even if your husband is a senior vice president at Cargill with a matched set of Volvos and you've canvassed your neighborhood for Ronald Reagan, you can still wake up to find that your husband can't bring himself to look at the scar where your breast used to be. You can find kinship with a Viet Nam veteran shot in both feet, with a prosthesis where his leg ought to be. And if you find yourself walking home alone in a drugged euphoria in the middle of the night, there may well be some who are finding comfort in each other, even as you have found some comfort.

If July, July never quite reaches the heights of O'Brien's best work, it is a much more successful piece of fiction than Tom Cat in Love, his last attempt to stretch his horizons and a book that bodes well for future attempts.

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