Tim O'Brien published the first of his books in 1973, at age 27, to wide critical acclaim. A powerful memoir of his experiences in Vietnam, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home is in many ways a precursor to The Things They Carried.
His debut novel, Northern Lights, was published two years later. It is a gripping story of two brothers, one who fought in Vietnam and one who stayed home and protested the war. Stuck in a blizzard in Minnesota's north woods, they are forever changed by what they learn about each other.
Going After Cacciato (1978), O'Brien's third book, was a breakthrough critical and commercial success. Winner of the 1979 National Book Award, the novel follows a squad of soldiers on their search for a missing comrade who has deserted his post in Vietnam to walk more than 6,000 miles to Paris for the peace talks. The search becomes surreal when they find themselves following an elusive trail of M&Ms through the jungles of Indochina, and across India, Iran, Greece, and Yugoslavia.
O'Brien revisited the subject of the Vietnam War twice more in his books: The Things They Carried (1990), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize; and In the Lake of the Woods (1994), named one of the best novels of the year in Time magazine and The New York Times Book Review. The protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods is a politician whose bid for the U.S. Senate is derailed when revelations surface about his participation in a village massacre during the war. He retreats to a cabin on a remote Minnesota lake with his wife, who mysteriously disappears.
O'Brien's other three books are a departure from the Vietnam War, illustrating his talents at tackling complex moral issues on any front. The Nuclear Age (1985) depicts a self-proclaimed pacifist who becomes insanely paranoid about a nuclear attack. In Tomcat in Love (1998), which marks O'Brien's first foray into the comic novel, a womanizing professor of linguistics and amiable sociopath suffers from a vengeful paranoia at the downward spiral of his life. July, July (2002) brings a college class of 1969 back for a 30th reunion to reminisce and examine the arcs of their lives.
To label O'Brien solely a war writer is to dismiss his command of fiction on any subject and the universal themes that permeate his work. "I think in every book I have written," O'Brien has said, "I've had the twins of love and evil. They intertwine and intermix. They'll separate, sometimes, yet they're hooked the way valences are hooked together. The emotions in war and in our ordinary lives are, if not identical, damn similar."
"Abstraction may make your head believe, but a good story, well told, will also make your kidneys believe, and your scalp and your tear ducts, your heart, and your stomach, the whole human being."
—Tim O'Brien, from a lecture at Brown University