Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1990.

Summary of Work
This novel is a collection of interconnected short stories about Alpha company’s time in the Vietnam War. The title of the work is indicative of one of the main things discussed throughout the work: the things that soldiers carry with them through and after wartime. Many of these things are considered lucky or are memories of home. Others are memories and scars from the war and experiences before and after the war that these men have to carry for the rest of their lives. In the first story, O’Brien details the death of Ted Lavender, a PFC who is always taking tranquilizers in order to deal with the horrors of war that he sees. He is going to the bathroom when he is shot through the head. The head of the company, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, blames himself for Lavender’s death because he had been distracted thinking about his girlfriend and her letters and pictures. He burns her letters and pictures in an attempt to never be distracted again. The love he had for her is unreciprocated, and yet he can never get over her or the guilt of Lavender’s death.

The next short story details O’Brien’s experience of receiving his draft notice and running away to the Canadian border, considering skipping out on a war he does not support or want to fight. However, he can’t immediately bring himself to cross, so he helps the owner of a lodge. When they go fishing one evening, the lodge owner lets the boat drift to the Canadian shore, and O’Brien breaks down over the realization that he is not able to leave, too afraid of what other people think and say than even he is of getting injured or dying in the war. He goes back home and then to Vietnam.

In the short story “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien indicates that many times the stories that are told are not true, but they are in the fact that the feeling of the war and situations are conveyed in them. He describes several stories that may or may not be true, but says that the real truth of a story depends on if you need to ask that question or not. He also tells of Curt Lemon’s death, who dies, blown into many pieces, as he steps on a rigged landmine. Rat Kiley, Lemon’s closest friend, loses it after having to see him in pieces, and when they find a baby water buffalo, he shoots it time and time again, keeping it alive as long as possible to feel the pain, until it absolutely dies from too many bullet wounds. No one stops him because of that. He also at one point killed Ted Lavender’s puppy he had saved and nurtured back to health; Kiley strapped it to a bomb. Kiley is the medic, and deals with so much death and destruction that it drives him crazy, and he later shoots himself in the foot to get out of the war.

A “True War Story” that Rat Kiley told was the story of a man who brought a woman to the war so he could be with her. She was just out of high school and things went well until she started learning how to be a soldier and went out with the Green Berets. She slowly started going out on missions and then became one with the land and even the Greenies were worried about her or unable to connect. Despite the young soldier’s attempts to reel her in and get her to go home, she would not go. He goes to the tent and finds her with a necklace of human tongues around her neck, and one night not much later she disappears into the bush forever. Since the story ending does not please all the soldiers, he makes up the ending as that she is always living on the land, becoming part of the land, only seen every now and then, but never brought back to civilization.

In another story, two friends in Alpha Company make a pact to kill the other if they are mortally wounded, and when one of them has his foot blown off by a landmine, he realizes that he doesn’t want to die and begs his friend not to kill him. His friend complies to his request, but feels guilty about it and is relieved when he finds out that his friend died in transport to medical help. O’Brien also looks back, forty years after the fact, at the time he killed a man on the road. He had a grenade and threw it before the man could ever see him. He couldn’t leave the body and just stared at the face. Kiowa, the Native American in the company, stays with him to help him process but makes sure he eventually gets up and leaves. When O’Brien’s daughter asks him if he’s ever killed anyone, he lies and says he hasn’t. He hopes he’ll get the chance to set matters right one day and tell her the truth if she ever asks again.

Kiowa’s death is in a shit field. They were camping in the evening and Norman Bowker and Kiowa were looking at a picture of Bowker’s girlfriend when gunfire started. They were already in trouble, sitting in the shit field and the river rising and creating a sinkhole of shit and mud and dirty water, and with the gunfire raining down on them, Kiowa got hit and then his body sunk in the mud and shit and Bowker could not get him out. Bowker, years after the war, still feels guilty about it and he relays the story to himself over and over as he drives around a lake in his hometown. Unable to rid himself of the guilt over Kiowa’s death, Bowker kills himself in a locker room a few years after coming home. The book also describes the process of looking for Kiowa’s body, as Cross refused to let him stay MIA. They found his body eventually, and had to dig it out. Kiowa’s effects were also found, particularly his moccasins and his brand new, ornate Bible his father had given him before he left for the war. O’Brien has the moccasins when he goes back to Vietnam over forty years later, and he places them in the field where Kiowa died to honor him and remember him.

O’Brien also remembers getting shot twice: the first time Kiley was there to clean him up and help him, and there were no problems; the second time, it was a new medic and the guy nearly let him die of shock and the wound got gangrene because of him. While in the hospital and in his new station, he dreamed of getting back at the man. And when he came into the base, O’Brien recruited another man to help him get him back. Even after the medic apologizes, O’Brien can’t get past it and continues on with his revenge plan. They scare him all through the night with sounds and flares, and in the final moments of dawn they raise a flour bag to scare him. O’Brien feels satisfied and then bad about what he’s done about halfway through the plan. After the end, the man calls out his name and the next morning they make peace. While at this base O’Brien also remembers Curt Lemon, who was so afraid of the dentist he fainted and then in order to save face, came to the dentist in the middle of the night and had him pull a perfectly good tooth in order to prove his bravery.

O’Brien also discusses his childhood, saying that the reason he entered the war was the same reason he’s always done what he’s done: he always needed to be loved, and feared being called a coward. He describes his childhood love, Linda, who died of a brain tumor at age 9. He recalls mentioning her hat when they went to the movies, and how he wasn’t brave enough to stop a bully from tearing the hat from her head and revealing her bald head and stitches one day. He walked her home after, but always regretted not doing anything. He discusses how many times men aren’t as brave as they think that they are and that when it comes to life and especially war, people do terrible things and it becomes difficult to tell the difference between right and wrong. The only way to get through these tragic moments of realization, at least for O’Brien, is to tell stories about them.

Brief Note on Themes
The main theme running throughout this work is the horrors of war, particularly the Vietnam War, and the scars that the immorality of war leave on the men who fight. Truth and morals are discussed, as many of the characters deal with death in uncharacteristic or mocking ways in order to process or deal with the atrocities they see and the atrocities they commit. For instance, Ted Lavender is never considered dead, but on the most mellow trip the war has ever given him. The power of stories is also a large part of this, as it is the stories that these men tell themselves after the war that determine their ability to cope and survive or to die. Personal responsibility for a person’s actions is questioned; if a person is just following orders or trying to save themselves in the war, are their actions immoral or unjust or wrong? The blurring of those boundaries in wartime is a feature of this work, even as O’Brien tries to grapple with the fact that there are moral pillars determining the correctness of their actions during the war. This work is also semi-autobiographical, as Tim O’Brien places himself as a main character in this story and tells the stories of his time as a soldier, simply changing names and some stories as he tells them. He discusses this in a New York Times piece that he wrote in the early 2000s about his return trip to Vietnam and his struggle to deal with the atrocities of the war and the damage it did to the people he left behind in the country as he went home.

Gloria Naylor, Bailey’s Cafe

Naylor, Gloria. Bailey’s Cafe. Vintage Books, 1992.

Summary of Work
Bailey’s Cafe is a novel about people who have had a series of life struggles and are in need of a way station to put their lives back together. The unnamed narrator of the novel, the owner of the cafe who goes by the name Bailey because people assume his name is the same as his restaurant, introduces all the characters and tells their stories (except for Mariam, who his wife Nadine introduces). Bailey is a WWII veteran who spent time in Japan and saw the aftermath of the atomic bombs. It is that aftermath that leads him to question the moral quality of America and its leadership. Before the war, he met his wife Nadine. He saw her at a baseball game (he is a huge fan of baseball, both the MLB and the Negro Leagues), and he followed her and spilled a raspberry ice on her. Nadine rarely laughs and does not smile often; she is a practical, realist woman, even telling her husband that if he died in the war, she was going to marry the butcher. She helps Bailey run the restaurant. Bailey was a cook in the navy, and although his cooking skills aren’t great, he does cook. There is one menu item each day, and then on Saturdays people can order anything they want. Occasionally, Nadine makes peach cobbler. The cafe itself is said to not be grounded in space, making its way wherever people need to walk in from.

Sadie, a homeless prostitute and alcoholic, is a regular customer. The daughter of a prostitute, she always tried to be very good, but was regularly beaten and treated poorly for making noise or even just asking what her name was. At age 13, her mother starts whoring her out, and she gets pregnant very young, and the abortion her mother has her attain destroys her ability to have children. When her mother dies, she takes a job as a cleaning lady at a whore house, and when that is closed down during the war, she marries a man 30 years her senior. He is also an alcoholic, like her mother was, and she tries to make sure the house they live in is pristine in order to please him. When he dies, his daughters won’t let her stay in the house if she won’t buy it from them, and in her desperation to make money, she turns to prostitution, is arrested, loses her home, and when she gets out, turns to prostitution and drinking for survival. At the diner, a man who sells ice for a living, known as Iceman at the cafe, takes a liking to her and wants to give her a better life. He tells her stories about how he sells ice and that it is always the person on the top floor that wants the most ice. He tells a tall story about having his ice used to put out a fire, and it makes her laugh. When Iceman asks her to marry him, she wants to, but backs out because she thinks the dream is too good to be true and that she doesn’t deserve it.

Eve runs a home that some people think is a whorehouse and others know as a way station to get well from traumatic wounds. She helps many women in a several story house, and she is always making sure that she is choosy about who she allows in. When men come to see the women, they always have to bring flowers or purchase them from Eve, who always keeps flowers in bloom no matter the season. Eve’s life story is that she was saved and raised by a preacher, but he caught her with her dress up to her thighs and a boy stomping around her while she lay on the ground, and he made her burn her clothes, throw up all the food he had given her, and leave the house. She walked all the way to New Orleans and earned a living, and then moved North, a rich woman who supposedly had never whored for her living. She bought a home and always asked women who wanted to live there if they knew the dust of the Delta, the dust that she would always carry with her from her difficult journey. As women come in looking for Eve’s place, Bailey always directs them there.

Sister Carrie, a devout, self-righteous zealot, also frequents the cafe. She uses the Bible to denounce the women of the household, and is regularly upset when Eve, who was raised by a preacher, can use the Bible to make arguments better than she can.

Ester lives in the basement of Eve’s home. She hates the light. As a child, her brother “married” her to a local white man, who kept her in a room with a nice bed and then forced her down into the cellar to perform unnatural acts in the dark with him. She was twelve when her brother sent her, and she knew that her brother was receiving monetary compensation for her being there, and so she stayed twelve years in order to pay her debt to her brother, and then left. She loves white flowers because they show in the dark and she can watch them die.

Mary, also known as Peaches, came from a privileged home where she was offered many things, but she always saw herself in the mirror and felt that she was a whore, and that’s what she chose to become. When she was mistress to a rich man with a club foot, she was still seeing other men, and when he told her that he would kill the next man she was with, she tried to stay in for two weeks, and then mutilated herself with a bottle opener from her cheek down to her chin on the right side. The authorities thought he did it, but she wouldn’t accuse him, and she wouldn’t take any offers to have a plastic surgeon fix the scar because she knew she’d just do it again.

Jessie Bell married into the very wealthy King family, even though her family came from the docks. She struggled with her husband’s father and how he tried to run everything, and when she had a child, Ely got into her life and destroyed it, alienating both her from her son and her family from her son. She descended into heroine addiction, regularly going to lesbian parties to enjoy the company of her “special friend.” One night a party gets raided and she is caught in it, and Ely uses it as a reason to have his son divorce her. After the divorce, she descends further into addiction, and makes her way to Bailey’s Cafe and Eve. Eve helps her sober up and then forces her to get addicted again and go through the process one more time. Jessie hates Eve for that. She is the only one of the women outside of Eve who will regularly come to the cafe to talk, play cards, and eat.

Gabe is a Russian Jew who owns the pawn shop connected to Bailey’s Cafe. He and Bailey do not get along, but when Mariam comes to his shop, he takes her directly to Bailey’s so that Eve can help her. Mariam comes from a small African village. Her mother had her circumcised in order to ensure her virginity before marriage, but she gets pregnant anyway, even though no man has touched her. Her village throws her out, and she makes her way out of the village looking for someone to take her in. Eve takes her in, but they are all worried about the girl and the pain it is going to cause her to have a child after the genital mutilation. None of the men will engage with her because they can’t deal with her story.

Miss Maple is a cross dresser. His real name is Stanley Beckwourth Booker T. Washington Carver, and he was born and raised in Southern California. When he is about to go to school, his father orders him an expensive copy of the collected works of Shakespeare, and when they go to get it, the white men in town confront his father about the clothes he wears. They had already regularly slashed his tires of his nice cars, and they start to beat them and rip their clothes, forcing them to strip naked. They find women’s clothes in the store, and they walk out in those. At college, he attains a PhD in marketing, but cannot find a job anywhere. He spends some time in jail because he was a conscientious objector and refused to fight in the war. He starts dressing in women’s clothing because as he is going many places to search for jobs, the weather is unbearable and he finds women’s clothes cooler and more comfortable. He finally accepts a job as a housekeeper and bouncer for Eve, and he intends to save up enough money to be able to go back and start up his own company.

At the end of all of these stories, Mariam’s child is born. It is a baby boy, and the whole of Eve’s house and the people in the cafe sing spirituals for hours in happiness over the successful birth. Mariam follows Jewish customs, and Gabe comes in and does the Jewish communal rites for the child. Bailey is named Godfather, and together, Gabe and Bailey name the baby George, after their own fathers. The story ends there, not because there aren’t more stories to tell, but because Bailey chooses to end the tale on a happy note.

Brief Note on Themes
This book is structured as almost a set of interrelated short stories, connected by a common theme of tragedy. This ultimately creates a story that functions like a blues and jazz song, with the stories being tragic blues stories and each person getting time to riff or be the main melody to tell their story, like a jazz musician. There is a touch of magical realism in that the cafe is everywhere and nowhere, with the back of the cafe leading into infinity or into death, and the front of the cafe offering an entrance into a liminal space for healing. Eve becomes a form of griot, both pariah and savior, one who knows more than everyone else in the area and community. The women’s stories are mainly featured, offering a variety of stories about what it means to be a woman and female experience. Eve can perhaps be seen as the first woman, founding a space for other women, who are always and only seen as sex objects despite their major potential outside of their physical bodies. Having a cross dressing man also brings up discussions of gender fluidity and what it really means to be feminine or masculine.

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. Dover, 1995.

Summary of Work
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a novel that contains a series of short stories interwoven to create a picture of the town, its history, and its residents. The story is framed by the brief introduction of a writer who, upon reaching old age and spending most of his time in his room, has a dream/vision where he sees truth created and then people walking past and picking up a truth or two, some as many as a dozen, and then going about trying to live their lives by those truths, and in turn becoming corrupted because they take the truth and turn it, and themselves, into a falsehood, a grotesque. The idea is that a truth clung to fiercely creates all sorts of problems for people and can destroy happiness and lives. The whole of the novel functions with this frame.

The stories range from tragic to hilarious in nature. Wing Biddlebaum is the first character that we meet. He is talking to George Willard, the young and naive reporter for the newspaper in town, and George always wonders about Wing’s hands, but has enough respect for the man to never ask. Wing has the fastest hands for picking produce in the town, but he is always insistent on trying to hide his hands, as if he is ashamed of them. His past is tragic. As a schoolteacher, he is affectionate and caring for the boys in his classroom, but upon one boy deciding that the man’s hands were making sexual advances rather than more of a fatherly care, the townspeople become enraged and one comes into the classroom and beats him bloody. Afterward, the townsmen come to his house with intent to hang him, change their mind and let him run, but then decide after all that they want to hang him. He gets away, changes his name to Biddlebaum, and lives a life in Winesburg after his relative dies that he had been living with.

Doctor Reefy is an older man who is known for having had a very young wife. The story goes that she came to him one day after a suitor had gotten her pregnant and she didn’t know what to do. He decided to try to help her as he could by offering her company and advice, and after she miscarried the child, the woman found that she very much loved the doctor, and married him. He was known for keeping thoughts on small pieces of paper, which he would read to her, and then put them in his pockets and roll them into balls and then throw them away when they were fully rolled. A year after they married she died of illness.

Elizabeth Willard, George’s mother, is the wife of Tom Willard, who runs the hotel in town. The hotel was her father’s, and she feels trapped in the town, unloved and unseen, never having been on an actual adventure. She hates her husband and her life, and wants her son to have the adventures she never had. There are later stories about her telling of her affair with Doctor Reefy, of her father’s giving her 800 dollars to live a different life than the one she had, and her inability to tell anyone about it so her son could have the money before she died.

Doctor Parcival is one who believes in living life with little amounts of work and going around hating people and feeling superior to them. When he refuses to help during an accident that leaves people dead, he, terrified, tells George that people will be after him for it and that everyone is Christ and ends up crucified in the end. Louise Trunnion is a woman on the poorer end of town that sends George a message that he can meet her one evening. He goes and they spend an evening together, and they figure no one has to know about it.

Jesse Bentley is a boy from a farmer’s family who goes away to become a preacher but must come back to his family when all his brothers are killed in the Civil War. He goes back with his wife and he becomes very industrious, but everyone is unhappy under him, including himself, despite his extreme success. He talks to God and is convinced his mission is to be like the Israelites of old and to conquer the Philistines around him by buying up all their farms, and he is convinced he needs a son, David, to help him. His wife delivers a child, Louise, and dies in childbirth, and Jesse is upset more at the birth of a daughter than his wife’s death. Louise receives no love from anyone, and in an attempt to find love, married Mr. Hardy. She is still very unhappy and is more unhappy when she has a son, David. She is vicious and cruel to everyone, including her son. One evening her son runs away to try and get to his grandfather because he doesn’t want to go home, and he gets lost. A search party is sent out, and when he is found and taken back to his mother, he is surprised by her warmth and care and concern. When her father states that he would like David to come live on the farm with him, everyone is even more surprised when she agrees. David loves the farm and gets the love his mother denied him, but Jesse is still insistent that he is God’s chosen. The first time he takes David out to the woods to pray, David becomes terrified and runs from the man who no longer looks like his grandfather. He gets over it, but years later after Jesse has become the most successful farmer in town, he gets it in his head that he needs to offer a burnt offering to the Lord with David. They get a lamb and tie it up and go to the same spot in the woods. While Jesse gets a fire going, David unties the lamb’s feet and waits for Jesse, but is determined that both he and the lamb will run when needed. When Jesse pulls out a knife to kill the lamb, David thinks that Jesse is going to kill him, and he runs with the lamb. David finds a rock, puts it in his sling, and hits Jesse square in the forehead with it, knocking him out. David thinks he has killed his grandfather and runs away, and when Jesse wakes up, forever after he states that he lost David due to his pride.

Joe Welling is a man who runs around with all sorts of funny stories and ideas, and he falls in love with a woman who is part of the scariest, meanest, toughest family in town. When they come to tell him to stay away, he wins them over with his strange ideas, obliviousness, and charm. Alice Hindman waits for a lover that will never come back. Wash Williams was made a cuckold by a wife and he hates all women for it and spends his days as a telegraph operator in Winesburg after that. Seth Richmond is quiet and doesn’t feel he fits into the town. He loves Helen White, but determines that he cannot be with her because he isn’t part of the town, and he decides to leave to find a better life. Tandy Hard is a young girl who’s name is given to her by a drunkard who is passing through town. The Reverend Curtis Hartman is married and a good reverend, but he is tempted when he sees the schoolteacher partly naked and reading a book through his open window, which is stained glass with a picture of Christ with a child. He breaks a hole in the corner of the glass so he can “overcome temptation,” but he is never able to. He sees her naked, praying, and crying in her room one cold night when he has nearly frozen himself to death waiting in the bell tower to see her and walked with no shoes through the cold to do so, and he runs to George Willard and says that God has saved him and shown him new ways. Kate Swift is a teacher who is unmarried, bound to be an old maid, but who cares about her students and in a motherly and womanly way loves George Willard and tries to guide him but also fails because she loves him but doesn’t feel she can be with him. Enoch Robinson spent time in New York City and became an illustrator for an advertisement company, but he leaves his wife and two children to be with himself and his imaginary friends. He is happy in his small hallway-like space until a neighbor starts talking to him and he realizes she’s ruined everything because she understands him. He moves back to Winesburg a bitter and lonely old man.

Belle Carpenter loves the local bartender but does not feel like she can just see him because of her social station. So she sees George Willard, but isn’t really interested, and George knows it and is unhappy. George makes one more attempt to woo her, but the bartender has come by earlier to tell her not to see him, and so she uses that as an opportunity to make the bartender jealous. George is shoved out of the picture and his pride is wounded. Elmer Cowley feels like his father and his whole family are queer and that they will never understand that is how the whole town sees them and their little shop. He feels like he needs to let the town know, and particularly George Willard, that he isn’t queer like his family, and after several failed attempts, decides to leave town, and before he goes, he beats up George Willard. Ray Pearson reflects on his life and how if he hadn’t had gotten his girl pregnant he wouldn’t be married, and that perhaps he shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place because it wasn’t his responsibility to take care of a woman after he got her pregnant. He is going to tell a fellow farmhand this in regard to his same situation, but then determines that it is a lie and the farmhand decides to marry the girl he has gotten pregnant. Tom Foster is a boy who comes to Winesburg with his grandmother and does odd jobs around town. He tries things once so he knows what it is like and then never does them again.

Helen White reflects upon her time with George Willard and determines she has some sort of affection for him after spending time with city folk and academics and determining that she doesn’t like their company. She and George spend an evening together, and out of it they gain a mutual respect for each other. They never sleep together, but instead laugh and occasionally kiss and then get serious as they think about life. They do not get married, but instead George leaves the city in search of a job as a reporter in a bigger city, perhaps Cleveland or Chicago.

Brief Note on Themes
The themes of this work deal very much with the idea of the grotesque as outlined in the beginning of the book, but it also describes much of small town life in the Midwest and deals with the relationships between people in small towns as well as the mentalities and personalities that come with that town. The strongest, most overt themes come in the stories that deal heavily in religion, making commentary about how seemingly good things and religious upbringing and study can lead to a warped sense of reality and disaster for families and individuals as they lose their way by getting caught on certain particulars of religion. The idea of getting caught up on small things rather than seeing a bigger life picture is, in fact, what hooks all of these stories together outside of their happening in the same town.