Magic memories of My Lai, Minnesota

October 23, 1994|By Judith Wynn

"In the Lake of the Woods" is a skillfully crafted, spellbinding novel that pulls us into the psychic maze of the Vietnam War and its aching aftermath. The 1968 U.S.-conducted massacre of civilians at My Lai smolders near the maze's troubled heart. Meanwhile, a familiar American monster roams its dark, twisted lanes in search of love.

Massachusetts resident Tim O'Brien received a purple heart in Vietnam and won the National Book Award in 1978 for his modernistic fable about the war, "Going After Cacciato." In his ingenious, mesmerizing "In the Lake of the Woods," Mr. O'Brien takes the role of a magician who invites audience members to step up on his stage and help make the lady vanish. How he does it depends on us.

As "In the Lake of the Woods" begins, it's 1987, and Minnesota's Lt. Gov. John Wade has just suffered a career-wrecking, landslide defeat in his bid for the U.S. Senate. A wealthy campaign backer named Rasmussen gives John and his wife, Kathy, the use of his secluded vacation home at Lake of the Woods, a vast wilderness region on the Minnesota/Canada border. The shattered couple spend their sad "vacation" planning to begin the family that they have been postponing for many years. One night, however, John snaps and wanders around nude, pouring boiling water on Rasmussen's houseplants.

The next morning, Kathy's gone. By day's end, John realizes that she departed by boat. Maybe for good. Has she gotten hopelessly lost in Lake of the Wood's maze-like river system? Or has fate been even crueler? Rasmussen and the local sheriff wonder why John waited all day to report her absence.

While search parties scour Lake of the Woods for Kathy's boat, the author conducts another search mission among John's memories. Excerpts from trauma-psychology literature, U.S. Colonial history and Vietnam War writings vie with terse, dreamlike episodes from John's life. We see that John's anger at his late, alcoholic father has lead him to betray the older men who staked so much on his campaign. We watch his childhood fascination with magic-show tricks and see how it served him in TC Vietnam, where he could make entire villages disappear with a rocket launcher. And then there's his love for Kathy: "He wanted to swim through her blood and climb up and down her spine and drink from her ovaries and press his gums against the firm red muscle of her heart."

John's participation at My Lai appears in lightning flashbacks that involve swarms of flies and screams for mercy. The infamous platoon leader Lt. William L. Calley Jr. eventually trots onstage too -- a drab, dutiful little man methodically emptying ammo rounds into women and children.

"Notice any atrocities lately?" Lieutenant Calley asks young John after the four-hour slaughter leaves nearly 400 Vietnamese dead.

But John is a magician at heart, and disappearing acts are his specialty. He's also a well-intentioned man whose political goal is to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless -- "politics as a medium of apology, a way of salvaging something in himself and in the world." Mr. O'Brien's magic consists in making us care so much for this disturbing, tragically compromised soul.

"In the Lake of the Woods" will baffle even its most careful readers. Its tricky double-ending forces us to examine our own tastes for blood and easy answers. Mr. O'Brien joins New England novelist Robert Stone and Russell Banks as a master chronicler of the mystery and violence at the heart of American history.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

Title: "In the Lake of the Woods"

Author: Tim O'Brien

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 310 pages, $21.95

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