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.
The enemy knew he could not defeat us on our own terms. The conventional battlefield was ours, the sky as well. So they made us bleed one body at a time — limb by limb — through the use of handmade bombs. If there is one tribe of the military that knows this tactic best, it is the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians charged with combatting it. Brian Castner spent eight years leading EOD teams, including two tours in Iraq. The harrowing aftermath of that period of his life was well-told in his memoir The Long Walk; his latest work of nonfiction, All the Ways We Kill and Die, continues the memoir’s narrative while displaying Castner’s considerable talent for both in-depth reportage and more imaginative forms.
Castner opens the book with a prologue that imagines the detonation of an IED in Afghanistan from the Taliban perspective — a detonation, we learn a few pages later, that takes the life of his friend and EOD comrade Matt Schwartz. Castner, five years out of uniform and now a writer and freelance journalist, asks the question the book seeks to answer: “Who killed Matt Schwartz?” From there, the narrative loops in ever-widening arcs through a structure that roughly mirrors an EOD team’s post-blast actions. Collect the dead. Tend the wounded. Gather evidence. Hunt. Remember.
If there is risk inherent to the structure of All the Ways We Kill and Die, it is that its polygamous marriage of imagination, memoir, and reportage runs the risk of throwing off a genre-monogamous reader. There’s as much for the armchair military history buff in Castner’s exploration of IED technology and tactics as there is for fans of literary nonfiction. The early chapters are fairly traditional narratives, Castner retracing the impacts of personal losses ranging from his dead friend to maimed comrades. But by Part III of the book, Castner must link disparate narratives from both Iraq and Afghanistan while keeping an eye on how he imagines a kind of IED archetype, this “Engineer” he suspects took Matt Schwartz’s life. The surreal rhythms of a drone pilot, a firefight documented through passages of military Internet relay chat — these are the disorienting signs of a disappearing center, as Part IV reveals how we hunt and kill.
The book is not a cut-and-dried war story; its conclusion is appropriately ambiguous considering the open-ended nature of the wars my generation has fought. Novels and memoirs by service members that address their time in Afghanistan or Iraq have not benefitted from the sense of closure granted veteran writers of World War Two, or even Vietnam. Where writers like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Eugene Sledge (With the Old Breed), Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato) and Phil Caputo (A Rumour of War) could look back at the U.S.S. Missouri and the Fall of Saigon with respective clarity; novelists Matt Gallagher (Iraq, Youngblood) and Elliot Ackerman (Afghanistan, Green on Blue) need only peruse the Internet for unnecessary reminders that both wars drag on today. Memoirists have fared similarly. Both Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country and even Castner’s The Long Walk could only conclude by narrowing the lens to a hyper-personal focus. A former soldier lies in bed. A former EOD officer performs therapeutic yoga. There is no definitive ending when the events that shaped your story are still unfolding.
“Long and Messy and Gray” is the book’s narrative climax, and details the lifeline of an EOD troop turned lethal contractor whose name Castner redacts to “M_____.” Highly fragmented, but crafted so as not to bewilder, its nearest cousin is that brilliant piece of Vietnam writing, “Illumination Rounds” from Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And it is the perfect final lift to a bracing narrative. George Packer noted in his New Yorker essay “Home Fires” that “fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently.” I contest the efficacy of a word like “honest” in this context; had Packer applied the word “effective,” the statement would prove more meaningful. “Long and Messy and Gray” might watershed the most effective personal war narrative structure I’ve encountered; the denouement that comes in Part V is necessary, but it’s this chapter that is most compelling.
All investigations, war-related or not, begin with a simple question and best of intent. But as Serial showed us last year, building a complete picture is about sorting through the puzzle pieces and assembling the mosaic as the meaning of each fragment appears. If, like M____, one returns to war dozens of times, the narrative must necessarily shatter each time. Within this frame, Castner shares the same creative space as Serial’s producer, Sarah Koenig. Certain pieces belong together, neatly assembled for the reader to observe. Other pieces, however, belong in a pile, appearing as they are overturned. There’s an art to this type of transient work, a sense of structural mastery just beyond the page that is all the more inspiring when you consider that both Castner and Koenig began with just one question: “Who?” The best writers fully admit that the best stories reveal themselves along the way. The best stories, as it turns out, might end up answering a different question altogether.
“Who killed Matt Schwartz” is the least of the questions answered within the pages of All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner captures the complex push and pull; the cost and reward; and a fully formed image of what it’s been like to be both in the middle, and on the periphery, of The Forever War. Despite this wide lens, however, Castner’s real task is to tell an intensely personal story. In the closing chapter, we find him walking the forest with his children, pointing out roots, ruts, and creeping vines that threaten their peaceful stroll. I imagine him pausing, pushing a knee into the rich brown earth and pointing ahead once more: danger there.