An integral chapter in The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River” narrates the dilemma he faced during the summer of 1968 when he received his draft notice and considered fleeing to Canada. The story builds on a theme introduced in “The Things They Carried,” namely, that embarrassment and reputation act as more powerful motivations than valor or courage. In that piece, O’Brien observes that the soldiers’ “fear of blushing . . . had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor” (21). Indeed, he begins “On the Rainy River” by confessing that he has never told the upcoming story before because he was ashamed to do so. He imagines in 1968 that, when faced with the decision to go to war, he would behave bravely, would be like the Lone Ranger, and would tap “a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years” (43). Instead, he discovers the decision is much more complicated and paralyzing, caused largely by a split within him between his conscience and his reputation. He finds the historical facts and political reasons behind the Vietnam War “shrouded in uncertainty” (44) and much more complex than the people in his conservative midwestern hometown are willing to understand. Yet at the same time that he criticizes them for viewing the war in simple black-and-white terms, he states that he “feared ridicule and censure” (48) and imagines what they would say about him if he did run away to Canada. The matter comes down to “hot, stupid shame. I did not want people to think badly of me. Not my parents, not my brother and sister, not even the folks down at the Gobbler Café” (54). And, with his notions of masculine identity based on idealized figures who act bravely and decisively, and finding himself torn between the fear of dying and the fear of shame, he experiences a kind of intellectual paralysis, what he terms “a kind of schizophrenia . . . a moral freeze” (48, 59).
After O’Brien walks off the line at a pork-processing plant job that summer, drives to northern Minnesota, and ends up at an old fishing resort, the Tip Top Lodge, he encounters a more attainable and accepting vision of manhood in the owner, Elroy Berdahl. O’Brien calls him “the hero of my life” (51), largely because Berdahl is “a silent, watchful presence” (51) who “never pried . . . [and] never put me in a position that required lies or denials” (52). Unlike the people in his hometown, who will gossip and believe that the decision to go to war is an easy one, Berdahl realizes—or so O’Brien assumes—that in such a situation “words were insufficient . . . [and that] the problem had gone beyond discussion” (54). When Berdahl takes O’Brien fishing on the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada, he is confronted with the decision between one life or the other. In retrospect, he feels that Berdahl “meant to bring me up against the realities . . . to take me to edge” (58). But, faced with the choice and imagining a host of people, real and imaginary, on both shores encouraging him one way or the other, the fear of shame holds him back from jumping overboard and swimming to Canada. Even as O’Brien cries in the boat over his future, Berdahl does not speak but maintains a “mute watchfulness” (62), neither condemning nor praising his decision. The next day, he returns to his hometown and off to Vietnam not for moral, ethical, religious, or political reasons but “because I was embarrassed not to” (62). Turning the binary oppositions of bravery and cowardice on their head, he confesses that “I was a coward. I went to the war” (63).
Such inversions are typical of O’Brien’s narratives and reflect a postmodern perspective in which traditional binary oppositions disintegrate, and all that is left are “imprecisions and contingent truths” (Kaufmann 333). In an important essay on the novel, Catherine Calloway observes that O’Brien’s stories display an “epistemological ambivalence” in that they function as “multidimensional windows through which the war, the world and the ways of telling a war story can be viewed from many different angles and visions” (249–250). O’Brien points out that in war “the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity” (88) and that war is like “a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, old truths no longer true” (88). And, if knowledge and belief are founded on foundations that are illusory, then fiction paradoxically provides perhaps a more honest path to the truth. In fact, in another story from The Things They Carried, O’Brien’s asserts, “Story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth” (203), an observation reinforced by the way characters such as Rat Kiley invent and exaggerate events in a story in order to discover the underlying sense of the situation. O’Brien himself practices this kind of exaggeration when he admits in “How to Tell a True War Story” that the story he has told about the gruesome death of a baby buffalo did not happen but that it was necessary to make “up a few things to get at the real truth” (91). Moreover, the dilemma that O’Brien faces in “On the Rainy River” appears in modified form in two of his other novels, If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going after Cacciato, where characters go to war because they are ashamed not to go. Yet he has stated in lectures about these incidents that “none of it’s true . . . No Elroy, no Tip-Top Lodge, no pig factory . . . I’ve never been to the Rainy River in my life.” In the end, what O’Brien sees as the purpose of fiction is “getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”
Calloway, Catherine. “ ‘How to Tell a True War Story’: Metafiction in The Things They Carried.” Critique 36, no. 4 (Summer 1995): 249–257.
Kaufmann, Michael. “The Solace of Bad Form: Tim O’Brien’s Postmodernist Revisions of Vietnam in ‘Speaking of Courage.’ ” Critique 46, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 333–343.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1991. ———. “Writing Vietnam.” Keynote Address. Brown University. April 21, 1999.