July 26, 2013
Except for the laughter, things were quiet.
— Tim O’Brien, b. 1946
American fiction writer
from “How to Tell a True War Story,” in The Things They Carried
I have written before (notably here) about the effect Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a volume of linked stories published before that term was in vogue, had on me as a reader and as a writer. I’ve read that collection many times, as well as much of his other work. I’ve heard him read twice before today. At the first, I stood in line afterwards and then thrust my copy of Things at him to be signed, gushing about how important reading it had been for me. At another, I held my breath almost the entire time he read a passage about the first time a woman lets her husband see her naked after her mastectomy.
I spent most of the day working in my room, leaving only for breakfast and lunch. I reviewed all the work I did in the past year on the novel, read the manuscripts for tomorrow’s workshop, and then, at 3:00, took a nap. (Writing is hard work, requiring every bit as much energy as training to run, albeit a different kind of energy, and it won’t tone your thighs.) I woke with a start from a strange dream in which I was trying to communicate with an older woman who was living in a ramshackle house on the riverbank down the hill from my studio. I looked at the clock — 4:12. Tim O’Brien’s reading was scheduled for 4:15. (Nothing at Sewanee starts on time. I knew I had at least ten minutes.) I jumped up and, still pondering the meaning of the elderly woman on the riverbank, I arrived at the reading with the creases from the sheets still on my arms.
O’Brien announced that he hadn’t read this particular story in public for about ten years. He cleared his throat, and began: This is true.
If you have never read the story, I urge you to follow the link above and do so. I will warn you. It isn’t a pretty story, it isn’t uplifting, and it’s not about war. As O’Brien says in the end, It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow.
One might assume that most people there were familiar with Tim O’Brien and the nature of his work. A few lines in this story have a certain darkly comic tone, though they are by no means funny. A man sitting in front of me, someone I met last year, someone who is older than I am, guffawed loudly at the first such almost-comic note. I remembered that last year, during the reading by the fellow in our workshop, he’d laughed at a description of an overweight girl, and continued to laugh even as the story got darker and the girl’s predicament became tragic. He doesn’t get it, I thought. He’s not listening.
At least he stopped laughing. The man behind me started thrumming a torn spot on the rim of his cup — plick, plick. He stopped when the woman beside me turned around and gave him a sharp look. I watched a young woman two rows in front of me take out her long braid and begin rebraiding it. She stopped, her hands still grasping the strands of hair, when the story reached the part about the baby water buffalo. Something in the air in the room had changed. Except for the lingering of the guffaw and the ghost of a plick and the soft whoosh of the girl’s hair, everything was quiet.
O’Brien’s voice broke when he read the part about Norman Bowker singing “Lemon Tree,” and continued to tremble for a few lines, and from that moment until the end, I wasn’t really in the room any more. I was inside Tim O’Brien’s head, I was speaking the words along with him as if with my own tongue, I was standing at the lectern where he stood and looking out at myself looking back. Just before the end, when O’Brien said It wasn’t a war story, the woman beside me and I spoke, very quietly, in unison, It was a love story.
There was the slightest moment of silence as Tim O’Brien backed away from the lectern and stepped down off the stage. Then we in the audience were on our feet, and things were no longer quiet.
I’ve been to a lot of readings in these years of literary gallivanting, but never one so holy.