by Tim O'Brien
Published by Houghton Mifflin
322 pages, 2002
The Banal Things They Carried
Reviewed by David Abrams
Tim O'Brien's latest novel, July, July, is a warmed-up plate of leftovers -- characters and plots we've already tasted in a dozen other books, movies and songs about school reunions. Regret, lost ambition and a sense of "how did we get so fat, wrinkled and boring?" drift like cigarette smoke over scenes we recognize from Peggy Sue Got Married, Grosse Pointe Blank and any other story where characters walk around carrying drinks, wearing "Hi, My Name Is" nametags, and sporting "I dare you to recognize me" grins. We've been here before -- on the page and in real life -- and O'Brien doesn't take us anywhere new.
July, July is banal, banal.
What a pity since O'Brien's writing often leaps and sparkles -- even when his characters are wallowing in regret. Take this passage near the end of the novel, for instance:
Billy McMann and Paulette Haslo ordered champagne and lobster salads from room service. They were on the bed, sitting cross-legged, naked and unembarrassed. They had made love twice in the last forty minutes, and now, as they waited for their food, they discussed the issue of turning points. They agreed that a human life mostly erased itself at the instant it was lived. They agreed, too, that out of their own combined time on earth, which amounted to more than a century, only a few hours survived in memory. "It's what we decide that sticks," Paulette said. "When we say yes, when we say no. Those over-the-cliff choices we make. Getting married. Getting unmarried
That's what makes a life a life, because you lose everything else -- peeing, soap operas, scabs, vacations, almost every phone conversation you ever had. Huge chunks of time. Like you never used your own life."
But these are well-used lives -- used-up lives, to be sure -- and the majority of the book is devoted to the Class of '69 sitting around moaning about What Went Wrong.
(These characters are so non-committal, they're even a year late with their reunion, which takes place in the summer of 2000 -- another of O'Brien's forced symbols of spiritual renewal, as if a millennial calendar-flip will really make a change in these self-pitied lives.)
July, July offers few solutions or consolations, but is packed to the alcoholic gills with lamentations. As one character laments: "Total shame, isn't it? The golden generation. Such big dreams -- kick ass, never die -- but somehow it all went poof."
It goes poof right from the first page as a jumble of characters comes flying fast and furious, O'Brien's pen roving like a camera through the sweaty, anxious crowd gathered "under cardboard stars" in the Darton Hall College gymnasium. Too fast and too furious, I might add. Faces flick past like a stack of riffled Polaroids and, for the most part, we never really get under the skin of the characters.
With O'Brien's telegraphed pen strokes, we run through a sweaty-palmed greeting line of types: the drink-swilling divorcees, the class clown who was "ugly as North Dakota," the Vietnam draft dodger, the one-legged Vietnam veteran, the breast-cancer survivor, the fat mop-and-broom manufacturer with a bad heart, the adulteress who'd watched her lover (another classmate) drown during a weekend tryst. You've met them all before, in one incarnation or another.
The narrative weaves back and forth between 1969 and 2000 and moves from character to character as they discuss "death, marriage, children, divorce, betrayal, loss, grief, disease: these were among the topics that generated a low, liquid hum beneath the surface of the music." There are a couple of harrowing passages -- we see a murdered woman's last few minutes of life; a lieutenant drifts in and out of consciousness on a Vietnam battlefield after being shot through both feet (O'Brien, who also wrote Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, remains fiction's best chronicler of the Vietnam War). But aside from those few moments, the novel doesn't wear its wrinkles and flab well.
Five pages from the end, O'Brien inadvertently captures the reading experience when talking about the reunion: "It had been a stressful two days, at times great fun, at times unbearable, and now a mix of weariness and midlife melancholy had set in." | January 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.