Tim O'Brien has written a new novel. This is not entirely shocking, as he's written quite a few, and hasn't ever said he plans to stop (thankfully). O'Brien's novel has elements of life gone frustrated through aging—again, not spectacular in and of itself. What's more, the novel centers, really, around love—won, lost, sacrificed, undying, speculated—and Vietnam as an era, as a defining event. As anyone who has read any of his several brilliant books knows, this, too, is par for the course. But here's the deal, the absolute skinny on the whole thing: Tim O'Brien has written what may be his finest, freshest, most humane novel yet.
Looking back at his accolades, it's somewhat easy to see how this was coming. He won the National Book Award in 1979 for Going After Cacciato, his third book. His In The Lake of the Woods was Time Magazine's best work of fiction of the year for 1994. His masterful The Things They Carried won France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, and was up for the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In other words, his CV was shaping up as a compass of sorts, pointing toward even more gargantuan accomplishments.
But then came Tomcat In Love, a bizarre book. O'Brien managed to squeeze more madness and pathology into it than he'd seemed to have even tried in any previous work. There was no Vietnam, no backdrop of horror, just the crazed mental life of Tomcat Chippering, a linguistics professor with a scary fondness for revenge, specifically focused toward his ex-wife. What was touted as O'Brien's great American tale of the battle of the sexes read like a field guide to pain, humiliation, and an unfocused silliness that didn't deliver much of a punch.
When you read July, July, his latest, it becomes clear that if there was a lesson to learn from Tomcat, O'Brien learned it. Pedestrianly enough, the novel centers around a 30 year college reunion, with Macalester, his alma mater, as the thinly-veiled model. Stitched through this premise, there are flashbacks to each of the main characters' pasts. Stylistically, it's a deep and distant blip on the radar of contemporary fiction, but O'Brien has done his best in charged, somewhat experimental formats—the backtracking and retelling of stories in Things, the multiplicity of truth in Lake.
Alright, the one very small problem at the top: the characters are all the same age. Yes, we go back with them, to different points in their life, but the lack of age dynamic in the text makes some characters difficult to get a real close read on. Instead of being able to rely, as usual, on age as a point of distinction, we're offered only who these people are. It's a skillful move, and O'Brien works it almost perfectly, but there are moments of confusion.
But oh, otherwise, it's just a beautiful, phenomenal novel. There's no lack of the grotesque element that O'Brien seems increasingly fond of. The physical deformities include a woman left without a breast after cancer, and a soldier from Vietnam with a prosthetic leg. But the emotional ravages and wounds are almost breathtakingly horrible. A smart, plain-Jane young woman who makes a few extra bucks the summer after she graduates from college through posing for pictures. A man who flees to Canada and the woman who promised and then refused to go with him. The most memorable character in the book, Spook, a woman with two husbands and one lover. A fat business man who's morbidity—his heart, both physically and emotionally, is pretty worn out—goes unmatched, which is incredible, given the sort of morbidity that festers throughout the book.
The gut wrench move in all of this is that the characters, from the moment they appear, are real, they absolutely live up to the standard of bleeding when pricked. You know them and, through them, their pain. And while it's true that the characters are all middle class, the novel is fearless in showing their pain as both in and outside of their collective socioeconomic condition. In other words, it's not just that they're all boomers, that their invincibility and hope and idealism has worn off, that make them hurt.
Yes, I've mentioned hurt and pain too much. The novel, too, is rich with both. But the pain is deceptive, in that we're working with people who've learned to live, cope, or even thrive within the pain or frustration or hurt of their lives. It's a gutsy move on O'Brien's part, if only because the novel could so easily slide into nothing but pain and sadness, an entire age's lament at all it's seen blunted by life and reality. There are moments when the novel slides a little toward this edge, but never for long enough to make you worry.
It's funny, too, in the sort of jaded way that life must be after so much living. The moments of hilarity—and it's usually hilarity, not just ha-ha funniness: Tim O'Brien swings wide—are so fun that you forget just who's being funny. It's a brilliant switch that he pulls, and something he does perhaps better than any other contemporary American novelist: he can make moments that should be loaded with gravity and austerity come off as sidesplittingly funny. He can also take an emotional scimitar to you, so that suddenly you're near tears.
I read so many book reviews that talk about redemption, but I've never really understood the phrase—I'm sorry, but I'm slow. The thing is, redemption seems to imply that whatever debts or deficits the characters face or carry, things will get better, particularly for them, even if they're horrible and dim and cruel. Something about the term, as applied to books and reviewing them, smacks of sentimentalism. So I can't say that there's redemption for these characters, mostly because I don't feel any of them needing any redemption. Life has kicked them all around, life has offered surprises and jokes and charms and everything else that comes with living.
But there is hope at the end, really. The director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) has said that he wants to give all of his movies the saddest happy ending there can be. An argument could be made that O'Brien has done the same with July, July. In what's one of the more beautiful endings I've ever read, there's a complete, satisfying sense of closure, and of respite.
- Weston Cutter