You Can’t Handle the Truth: A Review of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

I helped put on a writing workshop this summer called Bridging the Gap. During the workshop, I was reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. The whole point of the workshop was to get stories into the world, so this paragraph rang out like a bell:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Helping people tell their military-themed stories over a weekend in Duluth felt like a sacred mission after reading that. But there was a lot more in the book than that.

One thing that struck me was the repetition of episodes that happened to his friends. Especially the circumstances around the death of Curt Lemon: stepping on an explosive and blown into a tree. I read a press release last week that Tim O’Brien was hired as a consultant for the TV show “This Is Us.” In that article, The Things They Carried was described as a collection of stories with an “intertwined structure.” Maybe so, but to me it felt more like repetition. Names of his service buddies came up again and again, the episodes again and again. By the end of the book, I knew who those people were, even though each story might only mention them briefly. The repetition may have been a conscious effort, or maybe it just mirrored how often those events rose unbidden into O’Brien’s mind. Like some memories appear in mine over and over again at random times.

I’ve been trying to piece together a memoir (which I’m sure will dramatically improve the quality of the canon). I’ve been thinking a lot about memory, and I appreciated how O’Brien references memory and the attempt to tell about events from the past:

I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and the war has been over for a long while. Much of it is hard to remember. … the remembering is turned into a kind of rehappening. … The bad stuff never stops happening: it lives in its own dimension replaying itself over and over.

So, I got some nuggets about story, repetition/structure, and memory from O’Brien’s book. But the most interesting and ultimately transformative thing the book did to me was shake my opinion of truth a little bit. In Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story, Ron Capps says this regarding non-fiction:

When we write non-fiction, we make a contract with the reader (and with our editor and our publisher and all of their lawyers) that what we write is true. Not mostly true or pretty much the way things happened, except that we left out the stuff that didn’t make us look good. The truth.

This statement makes sense to me. It’s part of the reason I’m stalled and get more stalled as time goes by. I have to look back and determine what really happened. The farther I get in time from those events, the harder it is to determine the truth. To believe in my own memory. My procrastination leads to more passage of time and that leads to more doubt. Even so, I believe that Capps is right.

Chris Lyke at Line of Advance said something to me once about O’Brien not making a distinction between fiction and non-fiction. I didn’t understand what he was saying (and due to my bad memory, may even be remembering the discussion wrong). I mean, how could there be no distinction between fiction and non-fiction?

For me, the book pivots around the chapter titled “How to Tell a True War Story.” I can tell because that’s the part that’s all dog-eared and full of extra ink from me. In this chapter, O’Brien addresses (as he says later in the book) “why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

O’Brien almost seems at odds with himself. On one hand he says, “True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.” To me this sounds like an argument for truth in non-fiction. But then, he also says, “All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth….You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.” This sounds like how you validate highbrow fiction: the story is fake, but it reveals a deeper truth.

So, which is it? Maybe O’Brien purposefully blurs the line between fact and fiction out of self-preservation. My experiences in war were nowhere near as difficult as O’Brien’s. I don’t know what mental gymnastics he needed to do to get his stories out. I’ll be damned if I’m going to judge him. But this quote might hint at something:

“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say, “did you ever kill anybody?” And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”

Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”

As for me, I remain in the Ron Capps camp. I’m going to make the effort to tell it straight, to the best of my ability. Otherwise, I’ll clearly label it fiction. O’Brien lets me choose my own storytelling path by saying:

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.

Zen kōans like that are often unsatisfying. But the ambiguity in O’Brien’s discussion of truth may be the most honest thing about the book.


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Conversations meander when you fly across the whole country. That’s why I’m not sure how this started. But this is how it ended.

The captain said, “A lot of times I say things to get my wife mad. She’ll give me the finger.”

I laughed and said, “That’s healthy.”

“I was at dinner with my daughters the other day and I started explaining this to them,” he said. “You see, Japanese are called j***s. Vietnamese are called n**s. Chinese are called ch***s. Koreans are called g***s. But they all fall under the umbrella of being called sl***s.”

When I was a kid, and the conversation at the supper table veered into terrain that was unacceptable, my mom would say that it wasn’t “table talk.” The guy was at supper with his wife and kids, so I said, “That doesn’t sound like table talk.” I cleared my throat and took a sip of coffee and looked out the window at the plains.

“You’re probably right,” he said.

I waited a few potatoes and then said, “My mother-in-law is from mainland China.” I let him draw his own conclusions about how much Asian blood my kids have.

He stammered a bit. Not as much as I hoped. “Well, I wasn’t being mean, I was just saying what words people used to say.”

“Mm hmm,” I said.

We were flying from west to east. I dislike flying east. I wrote a paper once about the body clock. Flying east is disruptive because you’re shortening the day. When people are placed in an environment with no clues about time, the body expands to about a 27-hour day. So, flying west and expanding the day is easier on the body than flying east. I always feel like somebody is stealing my life going east.

Regardless which direction I’m flying, I regularly complain to my wife that I’m not home. Not on my ski trails or my running trails or my bike trails with my children and my wife and my dog. I’m sitting in a hotel in Nashville right now. I shouldn’t complain about flying through the sky, but I do. And I daydream about being home.

We just moved into a new home. I’m trying to figure out what already exists in the backyard. It’s coming up in front of me for the first time in our first summer there. I feel like I’ve been sleepwalking. There’s an abundance of life in the yard. It’s probably been around me all along in other places, but I’m learning about species for the first time. I just figured out that one shrub is chokecherry and not black cherry. I’ve got honeysuckle. Nightshade. Black locust. White spruce and I think some blue spruce.

I wanted to add to the symphony, so I went to Menards and bought two rhubarb plants. I like rhubarb crisp and pie and whatever you pour sugar on it for. One plant didn’t take. The other one took off really well, but I think a rabbit nipped off the new shoots, so it’s struggling. I’ll probably buy some chicken wire to protect the remaining leaves. My parents said I should plant it with a 2018 penny. A tradition, they said. A penny for the year you planted it. I planted it with a 2001 penny, because I couldn’t find a penny for this year. That year was pretty significant for my family and will do just fine. I read somewhere on the intertoobz that the penny is actually there to prevent blight, as long as it’s a pre-1983 penny made of copper. Some sort of chemical thing. Well, I guess my modern penny is purely symbolic.

I also learned, after much research and help from friends, that I have a plant called dwarf Japanese knotweed (fallopia japonica var. compacta). It spreads through rhizomes underground. If you flail it, a tiny piece of the root will start another whole plant. You basically have to nuke it from orbit.

I just moved into this house. It’s the last house. I’ll be pulled from this house on a gurney. My housewarming gift is a giant patch of an invasive weed that’s next to impossible to destroy. But I’ve decided that when I’m down with Leo checking on the rhubarb, I’m going to yank out a dozen or so weeds by the roots. I’ll keep working around the perimeter until I work it back to the foot of that pretty Norway maple with the deep burgundy colored leaves. (Another tree I was not aware of, somehow.) I’m not going to dedicate my life to those weeds. But I’m going to destroy them, little by little, whenever I can. The guides suggest that fire is the only way to effectively destroy any remnants. So, I’m going to build a little fire ring down there. Have a little fire. Pull some weeds. Incinerate them. With some luck, I may eventually eliminate them all. Probably not, but the patch will certainly be smaller when I’m done.


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Gordon Who?

2014 Bean Lake

Leo and I above Bean and Bear Lakes in 2014 when we ran all 300 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail.

In 2006, I’d been publishing outdoor magazine articles for about five years. Maybe there’s something in the Lake Superior tap water, because that was how long we had lived in Duluth by that point. I subscribed to the Duluth News Tribune and this Sam Cook guy seemed pretty nice, so I wrote him an email. I asked if the paper was looking for any freelance articles about family outdoor adventures. He gently said that was his turf. Ahem. But he said his buddy Shawn Perich was starting a new magazine up in Grand Marais called Northern Wilds. Maybe Shawn could use some of my stuff.

I published my first article with Shawn and Amber Pratt in 2007. I just submitted a story to them last week. They’ve been putting up with my scribbling for over ten years. And they’ve made me into a better writer. Even getting rejected by Sam Cook is helpful.

He didn’t reject my offer to read a book I wrote called Outside Duluth. It’s a collection of forty magazine articles that I cobbled into an ebook in 2013 through self-publishing. (Many of those articles were first published in Northern Wilds.) This interaction with Sam was helpful and instructive in two ways. First, he told me that he’d only endorse the book if he liked it and thought it was good. In other words, he was honest and straightforward. Which is like finding a unicorn, nowadays. So, I gave him a draft and crossed my fingers. The second way he helped me was by writing a nice blurb for the front of the book. So, did Shawn Perich. Those two saying nice things felt like a true stamp of approval.

And as writers know, a paragraph of encouragement from somebody you respect is like rocket fuel. Ain’t nobody getting rich in this game unless you’re Stephen King or the like. So, it’s encouragement like that that keeps you going. In my case, I try to remember the quote by Richard Bach, who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” I read Sam Cook’s work and I aspire to write like he does. He sent me emails here and there over the years with a nugget of inspiration after he read my stuff. Priceless.

In 2014, I ran the whole Superior Hiking Trail with my dog Leo as a charity fundraiser. We ran (jogged?) 300 miles in 41 sections over a five-month period. Mr. Cook called to interview me about it. The fact I did something interesting enough to rise out of the noise into his crosscheck made me proud. Never mind the writing stuff, I keep thinking of outdoor trips that are as adventurous as that summer trail run. Because for a moment, Sam thought my run was interesting enough to call me and put it in the paper.

Once, during that trail run, my dog did something that put me in an ethical bind. I asked Sam about it. He told me what he would’ve done. The way he put it, he would be compelled to take a certain action. Like he’d have no choice but to take the highest road. You don’t meet many people with that kind of integrity. What did my dog do? I will only tell if you write the question to me on a shiny new bottle of Vikre gin.



In June of 2017, the Outdoor Writers Association of America had their annual conference in Duluth. It was great to be surrounded by people who write about the outdoors. I went to a seminar called “Lessons from the Masters” where Chris Madson, Keith Crowley, and Mark Neuzil were talking about a writer named Gordon MacQuarrie. They were lamenting the fact that writing like his doesn’t have many markets anymore. Maybe Gray’s Sporting Journal. Then Neuzil said that Sam Cook was a writer on par with MacQuarrie and was somehow making a go of it in today’s market. Neuzil said Sam was a “generalist” and succeeding as a newspaperman in a tough world for MacQuarrie like writing.

Now, I should know more outdoor writing, but I have work to do. I’ve never read anything by MacQuarrie. A quick Google search tells me he was the first full-time, professional outdoor writer in America when he became the outdoor editor of the Milwaukee Journal in 1936. I should read his work. I come at the comparison a little differently. I’ve been reading Sam Cook’s work for 17 years now. I read the time he described skiing through the “barcode shadows” thrown by the setting sun. I read about the time his dog quietly nuzzled his hand while silently sitting at heel, waiting to be noticed. He wrote about a grown man he just met telling him about taking his dog out on his last hunt. (It’s getting dusty right here in this room when I think about it.)

So, I don’t know who Gordon MacQuarrie is, but I know who wrote the Friday column and the Sunday outdoors section for the Duluth News Tribune. If this Gordon dude is half the writer that Sam Cook is, he’s probably okay. I think we all read Sam’s work and feel better. I think we can see the common decency and small things that he sees. The human potential. I feel like I could be a better writer afterwards. I read his columns and feel like I might even have the potential to be a better person. Maybe.

Thank you, Sam Cook. I’m glad you’re still writing the Friday thing, because I couldn’t go cold turkey.




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