Tim O'Brien describes the Vietnam War as the most significant event in his life, and it is the subject, directly or indirectly, of most of his work. "The good writer must write beyond his moment," the author proclaimed in an interview. While his novels and memoir mostly concern the war, their thematic scope is timeless. His most-cited influence is Joseph Conrad: both authors address questions about man's capacity for evil and humanity. O'Brien's writing also shows the influence of Ernest Hemingway, and to a lesser extent, William Faulkner. But O'Brien is best known for a blurring of fiction and non-fiction that is purely his own.
O'Brien grew up in the small town of Austin, Minnesota, and moved at the age of ten to Worthington, Minnesota, which serves as the backdrop to several stories in The Things They Carried. He attended Macalester College and served as an infantryman in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1970. He completed graduate studies at Harvard University and worked briefly as a reporter at The Washington Post before launching his literary career with the publication of If I Die in a Combat Zone in 1973. This straightforward memoir about the despair and futility of being a soldier established him as a leading writer of the Vietnam generation.
After his memoir, O'Brien wrote Northern Lights (1975), Going After Cacciato (1978), which won the 1979 National Book Award, In the Lake of the Woods (1994), Tomcat in Love (1998), and July, July (2000). All are in part based on his war experiences, but most are novels, rather than memoirs. The Things They Carried, published in 1990, stretches both categories. It is neither quite classifiable as fiction nor non-fiction, neither quite a novel nor a collection of short stories. In the work itself, O'Brien distinguishes between "story-truth" and "happening-truth." He defines the latter as events as they actually occurred and the former as events as they occur in a story. O'Brien argues that the latter is more powerful.
Which Tim O'Brien is featured in his stories? There seems to be both an O'Brien the author and an O'Brien as narrator in The Things They Carried. Both fought in Vietnam, both are enraged by the ignorance of their hometowns. Both went to war because they were ashamed not to. Both, looking back on events, find themselves naive and even ignorant. But, as the author has made clear, the two are not one and the same.
Critics often compare this personal element in O'Brien's work to the intensely subjective work of war writers like Michael Herr. Herr and O'Brien both owe a debt to the journalism-as-a-novel approach of writers like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe and even Truman Capote. Tracts of essays have been written about the structure of O'Brien's various works, but in the end it is their strong characterizations, emotional content, and the impact that the Vietnam War had on America as a whole that give his work its impact.