First published in 1990, this book consists of short stories that build up a picture of a ground soldier's experience in Vietnam and after returning home. O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran himself, speaks from experience.
The first story is almost unbearably good. O'Brien uses descriptions of the tangible things carried by a soldier to illuminate the intangible things that weigh them down. The specific weight of each item—the 26-pound radio, the 5-pound helmets, the 6.7-pound jacket, the 23-pound M-60—hits the reader like a hammer. I felt my own shoulders bowing. And then there are the good-luck charms—a letter, a photograph, a pebble—that sustain them.
As a stand-alone story, this piece has deservedly won many awards. The remaining stories expand upon this one, focusing on a single story and exploring how his destiny plays out. Some of the stories are the narrator's own present-day musings.
At first I feared that these stories were mere padding, designed to create an additional product (a full-length book) out of a successful story. But the tales that seemed complete in their first telling actually do bear further examination. O'Brien comes back again and again to certain incidents and each time they yield something further, just as rereading certain books, I've found, always provides new insights no matter how often I go back to them.
I also appreciated when, late in the book, O'Brien turns to the marshy area between truth and fiction. Just as I began to wonder if this book shouldn't be classified as a memoir, the author steps back and parses what's true from what's invented in the previous story. Sometimes, he explains, only fiction can get to the emotional truth of an experience.
I agree. I wish everyone would read this book and pause before plunging us into a war to weigh the true consequences.