Tim O’Brien
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Literary Arts

Tim O’Brien

Past Event: Tuesday, January 9, 1996

Tim O’Brien was born in Minnesota in 1946. He graduated summa cum laude from Macalester College with a BA in Political Science in 1968. At Macalester he protested the war. Ironically, he was drafted upon graduation and served in Vietnam for two years in the infantry. When he returned to the U.S. he began pursuing a doctorate at the Harvard School of Government. During the war he wrote personal reports that were printed in local Minnesota newspapers. While at Harvard he expanded those vignettes into his first book If I Die in a Combat ZoneBox Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973). At the same time his first book was published he left Harvard to work as a National Affairs reporter at the Washington Post. He worked there for one year and then left to focus on writing.

O’Brien’s first six books deal with the Vietnam War experiences in some way, with the Times Book Review calling The Things They Carried “one of the finest books, fact or fiction, written about the Vietnam War.” Going after Cacciato (1978) won the National Book Award in 1979 and was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The novel combines the search for an AWOL soldier and the fantasies of the soldiers searching for him about their war experiences.

O’Brien currently lives in Boston.

Excerpt from Tomcat in Love (1998)

In summary, then, my circumstances were these. Something over forty-nine years of age. Recently divorced. Pursued. Prone to late-night weeping. Betrayed not once but threefold: by the girl of my dreams, by her Pilate of a brother, and by a Tampa real-estate tycoon whose name I have vowed never again to utter.

The popular wisdom dictates that in such situations we must “go forward” at all costs. (At one point or another, we have all chuckled aloud at the pertinent advisories in the pages of Cosmopolitan.) Move or die—so say the psychiatric sages. Learn to cope. Face reality. Stay busy. Exercise. Take up hobbies. Find a new partner.

For some, no doubt, this progressive counsel proves rock solid. Not so in my case. In the weeks following my divorce, I did in fact make a halfhearted effort at “coming to terms” with “new realities.” I packed up Lorna Sue’s belongings, purchased an Exercycle, attended faithfully to my duties as occupant of the Rolvaag Chair in Modern American Lexicology at the University of Minnesota. And while it was traumatic, I also forced myself to spend considerable after-hours time in the company of several droll, well-sculpted enrollees in my seminar on the homographs of erotic slang.

None of this had the slightest curative effect. I cried like a baby in the arms of Sarah and Signe and the tiny, redheaded Rhonda; I gained six unfashionable pounds; I drank myself to sleep. Worse yet, on a professional level, my scholarship came to a complete and terrifying halt. My classroom lectures, once so justly famous, began to meander like the barroom soliloquies of some dull, downstate sophomore. The old academic pleasures no longer beckoned. (During office hours, even as a chorus line of leggy young coeds awaited my attention in the hallway, I sometimes locked the door and lay immobile on the floor, driveshaft idle, my magnificent old sex engine backfiring on grief.)

Modern methods, in short, had failed abysmally.

Antiquity beckoned.

Selected Work
Tomcat in Love (1998)
In the Lake of the Woods (1994)
The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction (1990)
The Nuclear Age (1981)
Going After Cacciato (1978)
Northern Lights (1975)
If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973)

LinksInterview with O’BrienNew York Times featured authorTranscript of lecture given by O’Brien at Brown University