Tim O'Brien's class, 30 long years later

October 20, 2002|By Joan Mellen | By Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

July, July, by Tim O'Brien. Houghton Mifflin. 336 pages. $26.

Tim O'Brien's new novel takes the class of 1969 to its millennial college reunion. A generation now lost in narcissism, they retain only fog-ridden memories of when their lives were about more than themselves.

The group portrait scenes, middle-aged, self-consciously unattractive people drinking and dancing reality away at a gym, alternate with episodes set in the past.

Conversation now is about "death, marriage, children, divorce, betrayal, loss, grief, disease," the personal. Thirty-one years ago, O'Brien writes, unconvincingly, "There was good and evil. There was moral heat." Hope now has "gone stale," the characters preoccupied with "romance and / or spiritual fulfillment."

Alas, Amy Robinson and Ellie Abbott and Marv Bertel, who is too fat to bed promiscuous Spook Spinelli, for whom he has been longing down all these years, are a dull group. Nor are their inane conversation and boozy regret leavened by sympathy on author O'Brien's part.

This is no Garcia Marquez, slipping on the shoes of all his characters in compassion. O'Brien looks down upon his people with contempt and boredom.

There is one exception. His name is David Todd and he served in Vietnam. Beside "a shallow, fast-moving river called the Song Tra Ky," he was shot and faced death alone as he listened to Ortiz's little transistor radio which never runs out of juice. He pictures the woman he loves, his classmate Marla Dempsey. He waits, "leaking to death through his feet."

The writing in this section of July, July is exquisite, lyrical and beats with the rhythms of David Todd's waning life: "He was twenty-two years old. He was a baseball player, not a soldier."

Dead bodies languish on the banks of the river Song Tra Ky, "their boots stripped away, their feet too, the stumps shiny and reddish purple in the lurid sunshine." The prose rises to the elegance of O'Brien's finest work, The Things They Carried, in a stunning reprise.

So it is disappointing to return to a long discourse on Spook Spinelli, a counterculture Brigham Young, and her alternate lifestyle of maintaining two husbands and two households. Even less engaging is Ellie, who used her lover Harmon to test the viability of her marriage. Harmon dies while they are away at a shabby resort. In a fit of weakness, Ellie confesses and so ruins her marriage.

More promising is the story of Billy McMann, who went not to Vietnam, but to a Canadian refuge. His girlfriend, Dorothy Stier, ditched him at the last moment, leaving Billy to face his Winnipeg future in solitude. O'Brien drops this thread of his story too soon.

The fragmented style falters as well when we must wait too long for the remainder of David's story. His marriage to Marla is sacrificed to the aftermath of the war: tension, rage, violence and despair.

O'Brien affects an unwelcome distance as he recounts the sad fate of the class of 1969. It's as if the author is compelled to make clear that he bears no resemblance to them. A writer need not like his characters, but if he exhibits a visceral distaste, a reader might well be persuaded to look elsewhere.

Joan Mellen's biography of Jim Garrison and his investigation, A Farewell to Justice, will be published Nov. 22, 2003. She has written other books, of criticism and fiction as well as biography. She teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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