Tim O'Brien is known as one of the best writers about Vietnam: If I Did in A Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried. I read The Things They Carried last year and gave it a 10.
Yesterday I read July July his latest novel after reading a short story which constitutes one chapter of the book. I liked the novel. It was intense like his other work. Marla and David from the story are two of maybe 12 main characters in a story about the 30th reunion of the class of 1969 of a small college in Minnesota. David is the only character who had been wounded in Vietnam and he is handled with O’Brien’s usual depth and humor, but this isn’t really a “war novel” but one with the larger theme of how the characters have dealt with the legacy of the 60ies—many had been idealistic or at least involved in political or social action.
The book is funny too in an ironic sort of way, but to my mind not as successful as O'Brien's war novels. David is in many ways the sharpest character. He and his alter ego Johnny Ever comment throughout.
The book is focused almost exclusively on male-female relationships. One man went to Canada to escape the draft but his lover didn't show up at the plane. After a marriage, a child, and an affair with the woman who was responsible for his wife's death, he goes to the reunion expecting to get back with the woman who hadn't shown up at the airport. One woman had two husbands (one legal and one not) and two households. When she falls in love with a third, the first two move in together and a crisis ensues. The backstory of Spook (the wife) is harrowing—she was a twin, her sister died at 5 and she stopped talking and has used (probably not consciously) "dumbness" to escape all her life. Another woman was suffering from a secret she kept—how she had an affair with a classmate at a North Woods resort where he drowned. Now the secret is getting in the way of her relationship with the husband she loves. All are sympathetic characters—there are really no villains in this book except life and war and disease (one woman has had breast cancer and her husband finds her body repelling and another has a serious heart condition). Also perhaps entrenched ideas.
The writing is compelling--as is O'Brien's writing generally--but it's doesn't have the depth somehow of his war books. David, who lost his leg in Vietnam, is in many ways the most realized and believable character.