Authors Tom Wolfe and Tim O’Brien shared several things in common. Both won the National Book Award, both were purveyors of the English language, both are revered by literature professors and both liked to wear a hat.
The sartorial Wolfe, often seen in full-peacock splendor dressed in all white, preferred a formal topper, while the more casual O’Brien is seldom seen without his signature baseball cap. Both authors are slim and boy-like in their appearance had a unique ability to listen and fit in.
Most notably, Wolfe embedded himself in 1964 with Ken Kesey and his group of Merry Pranksters as they traveled a drug-infused circuitous route to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York in his psychedelic bus named “Furthur.” In 1968, Wolfe’s masterpiece of New Journalism, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” which documented the trip, was published to great acclaim — especially among college students.
In 1968, author O’Brien found himself as a young draftee on another trip, “embedded” in the hot Vietnam drug-infused jungle as a combat soldier. He would use that experience as the basis for six books including the memoir published in 1973, “If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up & Ship Me Home.”
O’Brien replicates Wolfe’s melodious descriptions of the Pranksters, not only when he writes about the absurdity of combat, but when recollecting more mundane occurrences like receiving watermelon, sparklers for the Fourth of July, or colored eggs for Easter. One line, “zapped while zipping” tells it all.
Wolfe, 88, who wrote 17 fiction and nonfiction books, most notably the “Right Stuff,” “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” died May 14. With his heavenly bespoke white suit, he’ll fit right in.
O’Brien, 72, who is still earning his way into writers’ heaven, passed through East Lansing this week. He was in town to accept the Mark Twain Award — not to be confused with the Mark Twain Prize — from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature.
The award is given annually by the group to a writer who represents the ideals of the Midwest in his writing.
Michigan State University professor David Anderson helped found the group 48 years ago to give Midwestern writers their due.
Six of O’Brien’s books have settings that include the Midwest, where he was born and raised. He was a graduate of Macalester, the small but highly respected St. Paul, Minnesota, liberal arts college. Following his Vietnam service, he graduated from Harvard.
In his acceptance speech, O’Brien told the assembled educators that he always thought he was “the reverse of funny.”
“I’m grim and sober,” he said. “Most writers feel a bit besieged. Classrooms across America are talking about us,” O’Brien said.
He went on to explain and discredit a strongly held belief that fiction writers are hiding behind their fiction.
“The fictional characters who inhabit my stories are Tim O’Brien no more than I am endorsing war because I write about war. I’m doing the reverse,” he said.
One of O’Brien’s novels, “The Things They Carried,” a series of short interconnected stories, is often used as a teaching novel on how to write war stories.
The ambiguity of a single line, “how to tell a true war story,” is the key to understanding how O’Brien writes about a war that has haunted him his entire adult life.
O’Brien believes that when writing about war, “story truth is emotional truth, and fiction or happening truth is sometimes truer.”
O’Brien was a consultant on the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, “The Vietnam War,” which he thinks overall is an important piece in understanding the history of the war.
However, he also believes the documentary, a 10-part, 17-hour behemoth, is “too unbiased.”
He explained over lunch that the documentary may not have done enough to show that the war was a failed action. He also thought that using the song “America the Beautiful,” which Burns has used in all of his documentaries, was a bit over the top.
“Brotherhood? Give me a break. We killed 3 million Vietnamese,” he said. At the end of documentary, O’Brien gets the last words: “they endured.”
O’Brien has uniformly been against the war, even going as far to criticize the fascination with POW/MIAs. It’s unlikely you will ever see O’Brien wearing a baseball cap with the words “Vietnam Veteran” on the band. At the luncheon he wore a cap with “Hendrix” printed on it. “Not Jimi,” he explained, but the name of a small college where a friend of his teaches.
Following the luncheon, O’Brien sat in a on a panel discussion where three academics read papers analyzing his novels. The papers had titles like “The Orphic Quest of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried.’” He quietly took in both their criticisms and accolades about “The Things They Carried,” a book The New York Times called “one of the finest books, fact or fiction, written about the war.”
But in his sweater, T-shirt and bleached jeans, O’Brien looked like he was ready to go golfing.
City Pulse Book Club to meet at LCC in June
The City Pulse Book Club will meet on Wednesday, June 6, to discuss “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit” — 50 years to the day after RFK died after being shot by an assassin the day before.
The meeting has been moved to Lansing Community College in the Grand River Room, which is on the first floor of the Gannon Building, next door to the parking ramp on Grand Avenue and across from Adado Riverfront Park. The get-together starts at 7 p.m.
“I look forward to leading this meeting because I was fortunate enough to meet Kennedy and, sadly, to attend his funeral and burial,” said City Pulse editor and publisher Berl Schwartz. “He was my hero.”
The book, by Chris Matthews, is available at Schuler Books & Music, in Meridian Mall.
The club, which was organized by City Pulse book editor Bill Castanier, is reading a different book each month either about 1968 or published in 1968.