Dad’s Maybe Book, the first in almost two decades from the National Book Award-winning author of The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, began with stories and reflections Tim O’Brien wrote for his sons after becoming a father at the age of 58. Over time, the book evolved into a recursive meditation on fatherhood, fiction writing, and the unexplainable mysteries of life.
Midway through the book, O’Brien shares a scene from his own childhood in the 1950s, when his father—often drunk and absent—gave him a book of Hemingway stories and asked him to pick five to read and discuss with him. When he finished, his father was nowhere to be found. As a boy, it was devastating, but in looking back on it now, discussing the Hemingway stories and telling us how the best fiction doesn’t explain, he arrives at a stirring description of what fiction does instead:
The essential object of fiction is to embrace and widen and deepen all that is unknown and unknowable —who we are, why we are—and to offer us late-night company as we lie awake pondering our universal journey down the birth canal, and out into the light, and then toward the grave.
O’Brien and I talked about the book, the life lessons he offers, and how to tell a true story.
The Millions: At what point did you know this would be a book book as opposed to a “maybe book”?
Tim O’Brien: All books are maybe books until they’re finished. Even War and Peace and the Bible. So it went beyond just a title to something important about the way we live our lives. We’re always provisional and conditional. Maybe there’ll be tomorrow and maybe there won’t. So that’s kind of how it developed. After I knew I would have children, I gave up writing and thoughts of publication for many, many years, but periodically I’d sit down and write a little vignette about something that caught my attention that I’d laughed at or cried at. It began really as little messages in a bottle to leave for my children. The way I wish my own dad had done.
At some point along the line, my youngest kid saw me writing and he said, “What is it?” And I said, “I hope it’ll be a book someday.” It was the first time I’d even said that, kind of not believing it when I said it. He said, “What are you going to call it?” And I said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know if it’ll be a book.” That’s when he suggested the title. Call it what it is. Call it a maybe book.
TM: Sometimes, in literature and in life, fathers inhabit a silence. Your book speaks from the place of late fatherhood, and you have a great deal to share, which made me think about how other fathers and sons might interact with the book. What did you want to share about fatherhood?
TO: There are several chapters called “Pride,” which get into my misgivings about the subject. We tend to erase our kids’ failures or remember the basket they made from the three point line, and then forget the 25 ones they missed. The same goes with grades and everything else you tend to take pride in. On the other side, disappointment and anger and sadness can come in. Then there’s the pride we take in our country and how we’ll kill and die for it. Pride can be a vice and it can kill people. So there’s this tension inside of me about this whole fatherhood and pride thing. Telling myself, “Watch it. Be careful. It can kill.” And not only can it, it does and has. This is an example of how the book moved from fatherhood to a kind of memoir, in a way. I suppose the book really is essentially a selective memoir. Not chronological, but picking out points of my life or things that have happened that have changed my life.
TM: You write about the dangers of certainty and absolutism. In our increasingly polarized world, what you think is the best way to beat them?
TO: Going After Cacciato ended with the word “maybe” as the second-to-last word, and it infects all my work, since I was in Vietnam when staying alive was always a maybe proposition. Everything seems conditional and I see few absolutes that I can’t some way modify or qualify or change my mind about.
There’s a kind of know-nothing rhetoric, when it comes to immigration and warfare. Who cares about the facts? We’re hearing it from very high places now on a regular basis, in the form of little tweets, which have their own kind of absolutist rhetoric. A tweet doesn’t qualify, show modification or exceptions to the rule. It just declares things. It’s disturbing.
TM: Some of the book’s vignettes are similar in style to your short fiction, where you convey a truth while calling attention to the made-up parts. Did you start drawing intentionally on the writing style that you became famous for?
TO: That’s the age-old question of writing, in that it’s not going to be word for word dialogue. It’s going to be my reconstruction of things that were said, and so on, as faithful as I can be to what I recall. Never exact, but I think that’s true for everybody, not just me. If I were to ask you, “Tell me what happened yesterday,” how much you could get out of your mouth before you’ve blocked out the dish washing and the dialogue coming out of the TV set? I don’t think you could reconstruct what you said when you were shopping for groceries. But none of us can. So much is lost.
There’s a line in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: “Well, your memory speaks, but it stutters. It speaks in ellipses.” You do your best to give an impression of a thing that happened, but it’s not an exact replication of what occurred. A few things were so indelible they remained permanent. There’s a part where we’re vacationing in France and my mom died. I told my young kids, who were then 7 and 5. We were walking down this long road down to a little town in France, and one of my sons looked over to me. I asked, “Are you thinking about grandma?” He said, “No, I’m thinking about you thinking about grandma.” That’s indelible. I didn’t make that up.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Elizabeth Strout, Benjamin Percy, Lara Vapnyar, John Hodgman, Tim O’Brien, and more—that are publishing this week.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Olive, Again: “As direct, funny, sad, and human as its heroine, Strout’s welcome follow-up to Olive Kitteridge portrays the cantankerous retired math teacher in old age. The novel, set in small-town coastal Crosby, Maine, unfolds like its predecessor through 13 linked stories. ‘Arrested’ begins just after the first novel ends, with 74-year-old widower Jack Kennison wooing 73-year-old Olive. ‘Motherless Child’ follows the family visit when Olive tells her son she plans to marry Jack. In ‘Labor,’ Olive awkwardly admires gifts at a baby shower, then efficiently delivers another guest’s baby. Olive also offers characteristic brusque empathy to a grateful cancer patient in ‘Light,’ and, in ‘Heart,’ to her own two home nurses—one a Trump supporter, one the daughter of a Somali refugee. ‘Helped’ brings pathos to the narrative, ‘The End of the Civil War Days’ humor, ‘The Poet’ self-recognition. Jim Burgess of Strout’s The Burgess Boys comes to Crosby to visit brother Bob (‘Exiles’). Olive, in her 80s, living in assisted care, develops a touching friendship with fellow resident Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle (‘Friend’). Strout’s stories form a cohesive novel, both sequel and culmination, that captures, with humor, compassion, and embarrassing detail, aging, loss, loneliness, and love. Strout again demonstrates her gift for zeroing in on ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people to highlight their extraordinary resilience.”
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Your House Will Pay: “Based on a true case, Cha’s ambitious tale of race, identity, and murder delivers on the promise of her Juniper Song mysteries (Dead Soon Enough, etc.). Racial tensions in Los Angeles are at a boiling point following the police shooting of a black teenager, and 27-year-old Grace Park, who lives with her Korean immigrant parents, shares the sense of outrage felt by many. Her sheltered world is suddenly shattered when her mother, Yvonne, is shot in front of the family pharmacy in a drive-by shooting. Dark family secrets begin to emerge about Yvonne’s involvement in the notorious 1991 shooting of Ava Matthews, an unarmed young black woman, by a Korean shopkeeper. Grace is torn by conflicting emotions of concern for her mother and shame at the implications of her mother’s crime. Meanwhile, Ava’s brother, Shawn Matthews, has tried to put the past behind him. When news of Yvonne’s attempted murder reaches him, it brings up emotions Shawn has long fought to keep down. The tension rises as the authorities circle in on his family as possible suspects in Yvonne’s shooting. This timely, morally complex story could well be Cha’s breakout novel.”
Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wild Game: “This page-turning memoir about an especially fraught mother-daughter relationship from novelist Brodeur (Man Camp) reads like heady beach fiction. At age 14, Brodeur became enmeshed in her mother Malabar’s affair with Ben—a married lifelong friend of Brodeur’s stepfather Charles—covering for them even after Charles’s death. At 21, Brodeur cheated on a boyfriend with Ben’s son Jack: ‘like our parents before us, we spoke in a language rich in innuendo.’ She later became engaged to Jack, who knew nothing of their parents’ affair, and kept quiet about it until Ben confessed to his family and ended the relationship with Malabar. Brodeur and Jack’s wedding became ‘Malabar’s battleground. She would be radiant… and show Ben what he was missing’; to that end, Malabar brought out a family heirloom promised to Brodeur on her wedding day—a necklace of allegedly priceless gems—and wore it herself. Wealth and social prominence abound against a summertime Cape Cod backdrop: Malabar was a Boston Globe food columnist, Charles founded the Plimoth Plantation living history museum, and Ben was a proud Mayflower descendant. Nine months after Ben’s wife’s died, Ben and Malabar married, and Malabar quickly cut off Brodeur, whose own marriage was crumbling: ‘Now that Malabar finally had Ben… she no longer needed me.’ This layered narrative of deceit, denial, and disillusionment is a surefire bestseller.”
Suicide Woods by Benjamin Percy
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Suicide Woods: “Percy’s haunting, well-crafted prose frequently elevates the mundanity and isolation of being human into something otherworldly in his genre-bending collection (after The Dark Net). The brisk, cleverly written puzzler ‘Suspect Zero’ begins with a body found in a train car and invites readers to follow the clues to the killer’s identity. In the chilling ‘The Cold Boy,’ a man finds his young nephew trapped beneath the ice of a frigid lake and fears the worst, but the boy survives, and his relief soon gives way to terror. In the visceral, but strangely affecting ‘Heart of a Bear,’ an injured bear covets a family’s humanity, leading to tragic results. In the title story, a man employs a disturbing experiment meant to induce a fear of death in a group of suicidal people, and an ember of hope burns at the heart of ‘The Balloon,’ which follows two lonely survivors during the dark days of a pandemic. In the exceedingly creepy novella ‘The Uncharted,’ a risk-averse employee of a virtual map making company joins a dangerous rescue mission to retrieve a team that went missing in a part of Alaska dubbed the Bermuda Triangle of the North. This gripping, often unnerving collection showcases Percy’s talent as a skilled, versatile storyteller.”
Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Divide Me By Zero: “Vapnyar bottles a profound sense of discontent in her tragicomic novel (Still Here), chronicling the life and loves of Katya Geller, an immigrant to Staten Island from Soviet-era Russia. Framed by the death of her beloved but difficult mother, a mathematician, the story unfolds in chapters headed by her mother’s notes for a math textbook for adults, which Katya finds also apply to matters of the heart. Katya is a mess of a daughter, juggling her husband, a couple of lovers, and a couple of kids. She tries to make sense of her life, her marriage, and the writing she discovers she’s good at, mining for guidance her childhood in Russia, her parents’ relationship, even the cowardice of her lover, B. She falls briefly for a very rich Russian named Victor and considers a divorce. Among the many pleasures of the novel is Vapnyar’s portrayal of the intellectual connection Katya has with her children, which is disarmingly lovely. Throughout, Vapnyar expertly exposes selfish desires and quiet discontent. This is a frank, amusing, and melancholy novel.”
Medallion Status by John Hodgman
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Medallion Status: “Comedian and actor Hodgman (Vacationland) discusses being in, but mostly out, of the spotlight in a humorous essay collection that addresses topics including his television appearances and his struggles to maintain his elite airline frequent flier status after he stopped flying extensively for work. ‘I enjoy being seen and recognized,’ Hodgman writes, but ‘frankly it doesn’t happen often these days.’ The author casts himself as a used-to-be-somewhat-famous person trying to figure out his place in the world. ‘Secret Family’ relates how he overspent on a fancy Hollywood hotel, then crashed with friends: ‘Home is where they have to take you in,’ he concludes. He talks about failing to get himself invited to a Golden Globes party (‘Career Advice for Children’), scoring free jeans at the Emmy Awards gifting lounge (‘Nude Rider’), and attending his 20-year college reunion (‘Secret Society’) and seeing ‘all my old crumbling friends.’ Hodgman’s best material focuses on the marketing tricks of the airline industry (‘Thank You for Being Gold’), which manipulates passengers, Hodgman included, into competing for perks. ‘The Sky Lounge is not aspirational,’ Hodgman writes. ‘It is desperational.’ This funny, sometimes delightfully absurd book offers sharp meditations on status, relevance, and age, and fame—or at least being fame-adjacent.”
Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Music: A Subversive History: “In this excellent history, music critic Gioia (How to Listen to Jazz) dazzles with tales of how music grew out of violence, sex, and rebellion. Gioia opens with humans fashioning musical instruments from animal bones, such as a Neanderthal flute made with a bear’s femur, and writes, ‘When the instruments didn’t come from the dead animal, they evolved from the weapons used to kill it,’ such as a hunter’s bow, which became the ‘earliest stringed instrument.’ He then explores the roots of eroticism in music in Sumerian songs and myths, and the divide between the sacred and the vulgar in music. Gioia explains how the early Catholic church elevated the human voice as the only instrument above reproach, since other instruments, drums in particular, were tainted by their pagan associations. In the Middle Ages, passionate secular songs were being performed by roaming troubadours whose new way of singing expressed a deep sensitivity to the inner romantic life. Crisply written with surprising insights, Gioia’s history ranges from Beethoven’s outsider status, due to what was considered to be his mysterious and gloomy music, to the execution and murder ballads in 20th-century folk music, and ending with the rise of rock and roll and hip-hop. Gioia’s richly told narrative provides fresh insights into the history of music.”
A Year Without a Name by Cyrus Grace Dunham
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Year Without a Name: “This meditative memoir by 27-year-old writer and activist Dunham, who uses they/them pronouns, provides a diaristic account of their unresolved relationship to gender and their journey to becoming Cyrus (the one boy name their parents had chosen while expecting) via a name change, hormones, and eventual top surgery. Born Grace, Dunham sensed they were different from other children around the age of five. Early on, they engaged in compulsive behavior (such as relying on magical numbers) and heard voices in their head: ‘a secondary, analytical voice that prevented [me] from taking total pleasure in anything’ and ‘the sped-up, echoing voice of Amelia Earhart, my narrative ghost, calling out to me.’ After high school, Dunham lost their virginity to a girl, figuring ‘if I couldn’t be the boy she desired, at least I’d be the girl who understood.’ The book follows the trails of other obsessive relationships— ‘Devotion is the closest thing I’ve known to a stable gender, insofar as our gender is a set of rules we either accept or make for ourselves,’ Dunham writes—and touches on their struggle with mental illness and their difficult feelings after their sister (who along with other family members is never named) became famous. Dunham demonstrates a self-reflective awareness of their own psychology. This memoir will resonate deeply with other young people seeking gender harmony.”
Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dad’s Maybe Book: “This tender memoir begins in 2003, when 58-year-old novelist O’Brien (The Things They Carried) has a one-year-old son and another one on the way. In the format of letters to his sons, he shares the joys of fatherhood, which are muted by the prospect that his children may know him only as an old man—or not know him at all (‘Life is fragile. Hearts go still’). For the next 15 years, with the ashes of his father in an urn on his bookcase, O’Brien writes for his children what he wished his father had left him: ‘Some scraps of paper signed ‘Love Dad’.’ O’Brien covers nights of colic, basketball games, and homework battles, but this is not a compendium of cute witticisms. He taps into the dark corners of his mind, sharing an analysis of, say, the parallels between the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775 and his 1969 tour of duty in Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province. He then presents a well-reasoned argument for replacing the word ‘war’ with the phrase ‘killing people, including children,’ and war’s impact on culture. O’Brien concludes with a humorous, moving letter of instruction for his 100th birthday. With great candor, O’Brien succeeds in conveying the urgency parents may feel at any age, as they ready their children for life without them.”