First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersy. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day's march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. . . . The letters weighed 10 ounces. They were signed, Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. At dusk, he would carefully return the letters to his rucksack. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.
Unless you are an extraordinarily patient person, beginnings must be good. It's difficult to continue reading a book for long when the first few paragraphs fail to arouse curiousity, provoke amusement, or stimulate a question. Tim O'Brien's near classic 1990 book about Vietnam, The Things They Carried, captured me at the outset, and that's saying something.
I've never read a book about Vietnam, much less any war, and even though a friend highly recommended the book and brought it to me at lunch one day, I confess I was not looking forward to reading it. I felt I had a duty to check it out. I had other things on my list, and there was nothing particularly interesting about a war story to entice me. But. . . I do love good writing, and I found that here.
One might say that there is nothing gripping about this first paragraph, and that's right. However, I knew right away when I read it that O'Brien was a master of the particulars of life and that the book would be less about the war than about the people that inhabited it. Jimmy Cross and what appeared to be his unrequitted love of Martha, for example. I also loved the attention to "the things they carried" as these objects each illuminated each man's personality. The language is specific and sensual (meaning it engages the senses). Already it pulls me in, already I want to know what other things these men carry and who they are and what their hopes and dreams might be. This beginning seems a portent of a rich story.
That's the power of things --- they carry in them our memories and have a way of prompting remembrance. Like right now when, looking up for a moment, I glanced at the lamp on my desk and remembered where it was purchased on a family vacation in the mountains, and then a cascade of memory begins --- a meal by the fire, a long walk on a mountain top meadow, looking out a window at a valley below our room dusted with snow, my children doing what is so characteristically them --- until I turn back to write once more. That's the power of things. They are iconic, that is, they are an aid to memory and meditation on Providence, the working of God in history, both ours and mankind's in general. And whenever memory takes you Godward, it is good.
I look forward to reading the rest of The Things They Carried.I suspect that O'Brien's focus on specific objects will be a rich window into the the humanity we all share and remind me of the rich if sometimes perilous narrative we are all of us apart.