May 4, 2009

Peter No Lie

Our host teased us with his early menu suggestions of kangaroo meat and his later references to Indo-Chinese fusion. Despite the misdirection, Peter pleased us last Tuesday with vodka on ice and a delicious sampling of chicken breasts, baked salmon, assorted sides, and brown rice (anathema to Asians but perfect for Marin County’s whole grain ethos). With his daughter’s brownies and Roy’s after-dinner spirits, we were more than satisfied as we settled in to our book discussion.

Our dinner was notable for the presence of two new MBC members, Tom A. and Paul, who impressed us with their thematic enterprise. Paul showed up wearing a vintage bulletproof vest, replete with camo coloring and an attached grenade. Tom arrived in mufti but with a bottle of Fly Catcher pinot noir and a six-pack of Ruination IPA, names that evoked characters in O’Brien’s post-Vietnam narrative.

As we introduced ourselves to our new members, it became obvious that mutual respect and civility have no place at our table. Tom and Paul, you gave as good as you got, and we only hope you come back for more.

The Book
O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods is a documentary novel about a Vietnam vet’s political disgrace, his wife’s subsequent disappearance, and his conflicted and confused role in both events. O’Brien asks more questions than he answers, and we obligingly struggled to figure out many of the same issues that perplex the characters in the novel.

None of us pretended to solve the Big Questions, but we were intrigued by the little ones. Peter asked if the protagonist’s flaws were the product of his childhood or of Vietnam. Paul queried the lack of emotional attachment in and between the characters and wondered if the reader was intentionally left with a similar disaffection. Tom A. and John were both taken by the geography of the novel, the vastness of the lake region, and the title’s inference that the answers are to be found in, not at, the lake. Garth and Stan dueled over the dishonesty propagated by all wars (or just some wars), while acknowledging (with Tom J.) that having friends and acquaintances drafted to serve in but not return from Vietnam makes for painful memories.

The story’s narration was a challenge, given the shifting first person, but when it came to the evidentiary chapters and their footnoting, we were all left guessing. Dean proposed that the narrator in the footnotes was Wade himself, returned from the dead and chronicling his own disappearance as the consummate act of magic. Peter questioned the veracity of much of the "record" presented in these chapters, while others suggested that references to an actual record (e.g., the Peers Commission) without context was just as dishonest. I felt that since only one man (Lt. Calley) was ultimately convicted of atrocities at My Lai, the novel’s exposure of Wade and his lie (“my lie”) was O'Brien's indictment of the many who couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge their role in this shocking chapter of American military history.

The book drew consistently positive ratings (7’s and 8’s from all but Roy, whose 4 may have reflected his disgust at Wade’s indecision on the eternal question: vodka or gin?). With a 7.2, O’Brien’s stature in the Man Book Club is secure.

Next Up
Next month’s host, Chris, pandered mightily and very nearly hijacked our usually staid book selection process. Playing Barack to my Hillary, he invoked Obama with his call and response (“Yes, we can!”), and he turned on the Bohemian charm (yes, I refer to the conservative SF gentlemen’s club to which he belongs and, yes, irony duly noted). With these antics, Chris sought to force the selection of Tom Robbins’ cartoonish novella, B is for Beer.

Fortunately, taste and tradition withstood Chris' ham-fisted tactics and, after a series of votes in which no one opted for O’Neill’s Netherland and few gave the nod to Lewis’ Coach, we picked The 25th Hour by Christopher Award-winner David Benioff. (The Christopher Award is admittedly a second-tier Hollywood tribute—in Benioff’s case for adapting The Kite Runner to the big screen—but he is married to Amanda Peet!) Let’s see if this venture into crime fiction is the diversion we need as summer approaches.


  1. Thanks to all for admitting me into the club, although I'm reminded of Groucho's famous quote along those lines and what that says about you.

    For those who are gluttons for more context surrounding a book they're no longer obliged to care about, The New York Times has three articles, spaced over eight years:

    April 1990: "A Storyteller For the War That Won't End"

    October 1994: "The Vietnam in Me"

    September 1998: "Wrestling With War And Love; Raw Pain, Relived Tim O'Brien's Way"

    In the 1990 article about him, he seems happy and focused. But his own 1994 article is nearly as horrifying as John Wade's story. Apparently he didn't go back to Vietnam in 1990 after all, and the 1994 trip tore him up. By 1998, he's telling his interviewer how much he was falling apart in 1994, and how he wishes he hadn't written "The Vietnam in Me".

  2. Tom, we only admitted you b/c you've been threatening to start your own men's book club and we couldn't stand the thought of competition. Well, ok, that's why I voted for you. I shouldn't speak for the others.