Houghton Mifflin (2002)
I don’t remember how well this book was received when it came out because I remember I bought it right away and thought I would read it, so I didn’t pay attention to reviews. I see the hardcover available on remainder tables these days, so perhaps that means it didn’t sell as well as expected. And I can see why. I don’t, honestly, think it’s a great book. Certainly it’s not on par with O’Brien’s breathtaking Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried. But, while it felt scattered—it follows the live of a large group from friends from their college graduation in 1969 to their reunion in 2000, and I think the reader’s sympathies become too diffused—I found myself engaged as I have not been lately by a novel.
Although there are lots of characters, one gets the sense that David, the Vietnam veteran and amputee, is meant to be at the center. I haven’t done an analysis, but I suppose the most pages in the book are devoted to him, especially because the July 1969 story really focuses on his being wounded in the war, and even in 2000 he is at the center of the most engaging story among all the friends, his relationship with his ex-wife, Marla. And that’s quite a story. For the most part, all of the characters are distinct and full, but David and Marla are perhaps a bit more psychologically convincing than the rest of them. David hears Johnny Ever in his head—an angel, a disc jockey, himself—and has been drug-dependent ever since his war ended. Marla, on the other hand, can’t feel anything and her problem has nothing to do with drugs. For a woman without passion, she seems to earn a good deal of sympathy from her friends and from the reader.
The ending seemed a bit rushed, but I’m not sure what else could have been done. I suppose O’Brien wanted to get the sense of all of the characters “on stage” at the same time, even though they were at this point in different places, and so the jumping from place to place—made possible through the omniscient voice—seemed to accelerate the pace, just when I think I would like to have savored what was happening in each of these lives.
So, the bottom line is that I enjoyed reading this very much. It doesn’t seem like it will be memorable, but it was a very pleasant way to spend a few evenings.