Tim O’brien is one of my favorite authors.
on teaching in a community college and
the talk about higher education.Soldier Reading a Book © JoAnn S. Makinano
The Use and Abuse of Literature
Pantheon Books, 2011. 283 pp.
Geoffrey Galt Harpham
The Humanities and the Dream of America
University of Chicago Press, 2011. 256 pp.
Mike wouldn’t sit with his back to the door: “I can never be sure who is on the other side,” he explained. I’d seen this before with my cousin Frankie, a veteran of Vietnam. Once at lunch, Frankie switched chairs so he could face the windows of the quiet Santa Monica café I’d taken him to. Twenty years later, in a junior college classroom, Mike sat next to me in the circle of desks where I’d gathered the students to discuss Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried. Once Mike had a clear view of the front and back doors, we continued.
We were analyzing the oft-anthologized chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” in which O’Brien debunks the simplistic myths of heroism fed to Americans through Westerns and war films, replacing redemptive clichés with his definitions of a true war story: “A true war story makes the stomach believe … shows its absolute allegiance to obscenity and evil.” A character named Mitchell Sanders tells his own “true” war story about a group of soldiers sent on a “listening post” in the mountains where they are eventually driven crazy by the silence, and by their own inability to express their fear. “They can’t joke it away,” Mitchell explains.
“Let’s start with Mitchell’s story of the six-man-patrol,” I said. I glanced at Mike’s book. I couldn’t tell whether he’d read beyond the chapter or opened a page at random. “In five seconds,” he announced, tipping his chin to indicate the back door, “I could be out of this chair, kicking the door down and shooting whoever’s on the other side.” The other students stared at their books or looked at me with expectant, nervous faces. Many of them had brothers, cousins, or friends that had fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Maybe Mike was saying something they’d heard before, or voicing things their own loved ones could never say.