The Vietnam War Comes Lurching From the Past


By Tim O'Brien

Houghton Mifflin

306pp. $21.95

IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS'' is Tim O'Brien's fourth book derived from his experiences in the Vietnam War. The first, published in the immediate aftermath of the war, was ``If I Die in a Combat Zone,'' which was less of a novel and more of a memoir, followed by ``Going After Cacciato.'' Four years ago, after some 10 years of trying to write about other things, he returned to the subject in ``The Things They Carried,'' a triumph of spare and mordant prose about the infantry experience.

This most recent book is another skillful and haunting piece of writing about the manipulation of love and the past. It redeems the promise that O'Brien has deeper things to say about that war. But in this book the war is an old thing. It lurks in the background never forgotten and never completely at rest.

John Wade has just lost an election for the United States Senate after a life in politics in Minnesota. It was a hard campaign; hard on him and his wife, who for the sake political ambition put off having children. Her husband promised that when he was successfully in the Senate he would make it up to her.

But in the last days of the campaign, the Vietnam War comes lurching back from the past. What John never told anyone, not even his wife, was that he was present at the nadir of the American experience in Vietnam - the massacre at My Lai. Somehow his political opponents have deciphered this, and they destroy him with the revelation.

Wade and his wife retreat to a lodge in the lake country of Minnesota. The November winds are cold, and colder yet are the unspoken recriminations in Wade's marriage. He is ready for this and is ready to do anything to make up for his ugly secret. But he is not ready for what happens: His wife takes a boat out into the lake and vanishes among the islands.

As the search for her ensues, the war returns to his consciousness as an ever-larger presence. He believes that no one can understand what happened that day when US troops, under the command of Lt. William Calley, herded old men and children into groups and machine-gunned them in one of the worst revenge slayings in American military history. But was it the worst? O'Brien deftly weaves in the evidence of history to question the accepted wisdom. Is Wade guilty of anything, since he does not remember shooting anyone? He remembers standing by and watching as others fired.

He is, doubtless, responsible for his own predicament. But Wade can find almost no one who understands. His secret can be neither hidden nor lived with. His unspoken plea for compassion is understandable, but the answer he receives is hideous.

O'Brien has perfected a pellucid style available only to a writer who knows his characters completely. The author himself was in Lieutenant Calley's unit and has said he had no suspicion that such horrible acts could be accomplished by soldiers from small-town America. Without doubt, O'Brien has been walking around inside John Wade's head for years, trying to discover where a man who was at My Lai would have hidden his memories.

On a larger scale, the entire nation has hidden away these memories. Which means that stories like this one, as old as war, as current as this year's elections, must be told again and again.

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