Friday, October 30, 2009
Tim O'Brien goes home
Tim O'Brien is one of my all time favorite writers and an absolute must-read for all lovers of literature. (Go forth right now and read the following: The Things They Carried, Going After Cacciato, If I Die In a Combat Zone and In the Lake in the Woods.) He has an essay in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine that is partly about his hometown, Worthington, Minnesota but mostly about his father. O'Brien fans will know some of what to expect here (thoughtful consideration of a place and people as well as himself and his family) but if you're new to the author then here's a bit behind the cut:
For my father, still a relatively young man, it had to be bewildering to find himself in a landscape of grain elevators, silos, farm implement dealerships, feed stores and livestock sales barns. I don't mean to be deterministic about it. Human suffering can rarely be reduced to a single cause, and my dad may well have ended up with similar problems no matter where he lived. Yet unlike Chicago or New York, small-town Minnesota did not allow a man's failings to disappear beneath a veil of numbers. People talked. Secrets did not stay secret. And for me, already full of shame and embarrassment at my dad's drinking, the humiliating glare of public scrutiny began eating away at my stomach and at my self-esteem. I overheard things in school. There was teasing and innuendo. I felt pitied at times. Other times I felt judged. Some of this was imagined, no doubt, but some was as real as a toothache. One summer afternoon in the late '50s, I heard myself explaining to my teammates that my dad would no longer be coaching Little League, that he was in a state hospital, that he might or might not be back home that summer. I did not utter the word "alcohol"—nothing of the sort—but the mortification of that day still opens a trapdoor in my heart.
His father, he explains, was from Brooklyn and perhaps it was the move to Minnesota that made everything so hard. Honestly he does not know, but he thinks about his dad and his hometown and what it made of both of them. His life was not tragedy but it wasn't all daisies either. In fact, it was probably like a lot of lives but most of us just don't have O'Brien's talent when it comes to reflection - let alone writing. Kris had a great post earlier this year on The Things They Carried which gives you a taste of O'Brien's talent. Read the Smithsonian essay, read Kris's post and then go get some of Tim O'Brien's books. I promise, you won't be disappointed.