The Truth in Tracy Kidder’s Fiction

Yesterday the Book Bench linked to an interview with Tracy Kidder at the Bygone Bureau, where he discusses his history as a nonfiction author and some of his early writerly regrets. (He’s bought back the rights to his first book, The Road to Yuba City, in the hopes you’ll never read it.) He also mentions his early attempts to write fiction:

I wrote a novel that was really bad. It wasn’t published, thank god. Although I did use it in a small book that I wrote called My Detachment. It was a novel about Vietnam. It was all about experiences I didn’t have in Vietnam. It was mostly a… that’s the closest thing I had to a journal of my time as a soldier, and so it’s mostly of psychological interest. I published, I think, three short stories over the years. But I haven’t been writing fiction for quite some time. Although I’d like to write fiction again, I don’t have any fiction I’d like to write at the moment.

I’m happy for any excuse to mention My Detachment, which I like to think of as the last honest memoir: A book that is not only up-front about how humdrum the author’s experience was, but which attempts to get at why writers inflate stories about themselves. The impetus for the book was Kidder receiving a copy of that unpublished war novel, “Ivory Fields,” in the mail from a friend. Kidder had burned his manuscript, and on the evidence he provides, he wasn’t torching a future classic. (“About this time is when the sad story begins. It is the saddest story you ever hope to hear.”) But writing the book spoke to an instinct common among soldiers:

Most of the American soldiers who went to Vietnam were boys, whether they were twenty-two or just eighteen. They had watched a lot of movies and TV. I’m sure that many set out for Vietnam feeling confused or unhappy, as adolescents tend to do, and deep down many probably thought they would return with improved reasons for feeling that way. But of the roughly three million Americans who went to the war dressed as soldiers, only a small minority returned with Combat Infantryman’s Badges, certain proof of a terrible experience. Imagine all the bullshit stories Vietnam inspired.

My Detachment is largely a study of Kidder’s own capacity for bullshit, in the failed novel, in conversations, and especially in his letters back home. (“I shot a man through the head and little pieces of his brain and a great quantity of blood colored my gun and my clothes and face,” he lies in a letter to his girlfriend back home.) Kidder admits to an almost comic narcissism: After arriving in Berkeley once his stint is over, he’s disappointed that he isn’t met with the stereotypical protests and jeers. “Maybe if we’d stopped and walked around that campus in our uniforms, we’d have found someone to spit on us,” he writes. Throughout My Detachment, is hard on himself, but not so hard that he lapses into the very self-pity he’s criticizing in his youthful self. It’s essential reading for anybody who thinks their lives merit an entire book.

War Stories

A couple of weeks back the Virginian-Pilot interviewed Tim O’Brien about his books, more specifically his novels and stories about Vietnam. Even more specifically, he discussed the role that truth-bending plays in any narrative about war. He explains, for instance, why he chose to have a narrator in 1990’s The Things They Carried named Tim O’Brien:

I’ve intentionally used my own name (as a character) and tried to blur the line a little more. To get my readers to think about what’s true or what’s not, why does it matter to me, and to think about can a story be literally true but emotionally false, or vice versa. Truth is a fluid and volatile thing. Truths about our country that were believed 150 years ago have evolved, and they evolve every day. With our sense of what’s true about ourselves and our country, we learn things about ourselves that we didn’t know yesterday.

I’ve had this idea on the brain lately, between finishing up David Simon‘s HBO miniseries on the Iraq invasion, Generation Kill, and reading Mark Danner‘s latest dispatch on the Red Cross report on torture in the New York Review of Books. One’s a fiction and one’s fact, but both get at how slippery the truth becomes in a war zone, and perhaps more important, how arbitrarily human lives become valued in a war; they shift radically depending on the conditions of the moment.

I’m many years away from my first reading of Going After Cacciato, so I don’t recall just how much soldiers’ pride and insecurity played into the lies that get told about war. But it certainly has a prominent place in a more recent, unfortunately neglected nonfiction book: Tracy Kidder‘s My Detachment, his 2005 memoir about his experiences during Vietnam (and his failed attempts to write a novel about it). I suspect that part of the reason why the book didn’t get much heat was because there’s not a lot of action in it; it doesn’t allow the reader to fall into the shoot-’em-up fantasies about war that even Generation Kill indulges in every so often. (Kidder didn’t see combat. He was what infantrymen called a REMF—“rear echelon motherfucker.”) But what it does get into is how those fantasies start, and how frustrating it is to be in a war zone and not get to participate in any actual fighting. Kidder writes of the letters, full of evasions about how much he was doing, he sent back home. “For months I’d been trying to convince myself, by convincing everyone back home, that in the crucible of war I’d made that great transition,” he writes. Later, he writes a letter to his increasingly distant girlfriend, acting out his aggression and piling on the b.s., closing:

“I have nothing to lose. I really lost my virginity over here. I shot a man through the head and little pieces of his brain and a great quantity of blood colored by gun and my clothes and my face. I never cried so hard over you. But, not unlike you, I am becoming a whore of a different sort. I like it. I LIKE it. You filthy, rotten bitch. One letter from you at any one time would have done so much for me. You fucking bitch.”

Kidder at least had the good sense not to send the letter.