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Writer's Voice Matures With a Generation

Veteran puts aside Vietnam for a tale about boomers who had to settle for less

September 08, 2002|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Texas — Long ago, Tim O'Brien dreamed he would live on a golf course. And here he is now, in a home perched beside the 18th green of the Onion Creek Club, sitting pretty. His subdivision on the far outskirts of Austin has streets named after golf courses like Pebble Beach and Pinehurst. Swans ply the waters of a fairway pond just down the street.

The setting seems somehow incongruous, given the fact that O'Brien is a novelist whose most noted work deals with the agony of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Yet as he is quick to point out, "some things happen that you don't expect." In this case, the surprise was an endowed chair for creative writing at Southwest Texas State University in nearby San Marcos, which lured him away from the colder, drearier climes of Boston three years ago.

Now he is a man with a pool, which glittered in the bright morning sun. O'Brien lighted one Carleton after another in his study as he talked about writing, Vietnam and his soon-to-be-released novel, "July, July" (Houghton Mifflin). The walls are filled with mementos of his past literary triumphs, including the 1979 National Book Award for "Going After Cacciato," a breakthrough novel that was a surprise winner over John Irving's bestseller, "The World According to Garp."

There are other telling items as well. A framed Harry Houdini poster hints at O'Brien's love of magic and sleight of hand. A black-and-white photo of a young O'Brien in full cowboy regalia points to a more innocent time in rural Minnesota, where the 55-year-old author grew up and where much of his work is set.

Both windows of the study are stained glass, each depicting books, pens and other literary devices. And in the corner is his desk, where O'Brien works from early morning until evening, polishing the words that have found their way on to his computer screen. There are times when he does not leave his house for days, when obligations become a nuisance. And he is notorious for writing huge chunks of prose, then discarding it all because he finds the words lacking. He's also known for making major revisions on a book between editions.

"It's a struggle. Every book is a struggle. And the struggle is about things people won't even notice," O'Brien said. "I try to delete as much ugliness as I recognize from my work. The first instinct is to reach for the Kmart version of language. Then you try to find a unique way of saying things."

The setting for O'Brien's latest effort is a 30-year reunion at a Minnesota college, where a collection of troubled souls gather to dance and drink and, over the course of the book, reveal the hands that have been dealt them. It examines a generation that thought it could change everything, including war, but has had to settle for far less in the end.

"Thirty-one years ago," O'Brien writes in the opening chapter, "in the brutal spring of 1969, Amy Robinson and many others had lives beyond themselves, elevated by the times. There was good and evil. There was moral heat. But this was the year 2000, a new millennium, congeniality in public places, hope gone stale, morons become millionaires, and the gossip was about Ellie Abbott's depression, Dorothy Stier's breast cancer, Spook Spinelli's successful double marriage and the fact that she seemed to be going for a triple that evening with either Marv Bertel or Billy McMann."

With that beginning, O'Brien proceeds to unlock the complicated relationships among the principal characters, including one who fled to Canada to avoid the draft and another who had a leg blown off on the edge of the Song Tra Ky river in Vietnam. Using his eclectic cast of characters, O'Brien goes to the heart of that era, which has been his passion for the last three decades. O'Brien said his relentless aging was the impetus for the book, which began as a one-page short story in Esquire.

"The time comes when you can't fool yourself," he said. "Some things you hoped for aren't ever going to come true. You become more realistic about yourself and the world."

Little in O'Brien's early life gives a clue to the fact that he would eventually be labeled by some as one of the best writers of his generation. His father, William, was an insurance salesman in rural Worthington, Minn.; his mother, Ava, was an elementary school teacher. He read voraciously, but was, at various times, shy and overweight, resorting to magic tricks as a lonely pastime. If there was a hint of a writer-to-be, it was the fact that O'Brien admired the articles written by his father, who penned personal accounts in the New York Times of his wartime experience while a soldier on Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II.

By the time O'Brien entered Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., the Vietnam War was in full swing. Opposition was mounting to it, particularly on college campuses across the country. O'Brien was a participant in those protests, while at the same time not giving much thought to his susceptibility to the draft.

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