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Dad's Maybe Book


Dad's Maybe Book

It’s been 17 years since Tim O’Brien’s last book, and even the most ardent admirers of works like THE THINGS THEY CARRIED and IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS probably had long since stopped hoping for new writing from him. But it’s not as if O’Brien has been idle all these years. In addition to his teaching, in 2003, at age 57, he became a father for the first time, with a second son following two years later.

After the birth of his first child, O’Brien began to “dash off a few short messages in a bottle that my kids might find tucked away in a dusty file cabinet long after my death.” The result of that intermittent work over the ensuing 15 years --- what O’Brien imagined as “little word-gifts” for his boys --- is DAD’S MAYBE BOOK.

In that description of a bountiful treasury of fatherly advice, memoir, literary criticism, history, political commentary, and a dash of magic and miracles, the National Book Award-winning author is far too self-effacing. There are smiles and tears awaiting the reader on every page of this often emotionally charged book, and enough wisdom in it about what it means to be a parent, and a decent human being, to fuel many hours of personal recollection and reflection.

"There are smiles and tears awaiting the reader on every page of this often emotionally charged book, and enough wisdom in it about what it means to be a parent, and a decent human being, to fuel many hours of personal recollection and reflection."

Any father who doesn’t look at his children and think about mortality is a fool. But how much more so is that the case when the man enters that status at an age when many of his contemporaries are greeting their first grandchildren? O’Brien understands that the actuarial odds that he’ll live long enough to attain the title of grandpa are against him. However, from the evidence of this book, he has relished his decade and a half of late-life fatherhood.

DAD’S MAYBE BOOK (the title comes from his younger son Tad’s observation, when he learns of O’Brien’s project, that “maybe” his father’s musings will turn into a book someday) overflows with intimate family moments, some raucously funny, others bittersweet and even poignant. For all their particularity, any father will find himself nodding often in recognition.

There are stories about Timmy’s attempt to master the unicycle and his crushing disappointment when he fails to make the basketball team, Tad’s skill at hula hoops, his desire to “cuddle bunnies” for a living, and what it means to the family when someone goes into the “stew pot.” O’Brien shares his regrets about his relationship with his father, an alcoholic and avid reader, who failed to realize his dreams in small-town Minnesota. In all this, he wisely recognizes that “the imposition of order would be an artificial disgrace and, worse yet, deceitful,” and so he offers up the fullness of his family’s life in all its “chaotic messiness.”

The closest O’Brien comes to any structure is in recurring chapters with titles like “Home School,” where he imparts various life lessons, and “Timmy and Tad and Papa and I” (five in all), where he explores the stories of Ernest Hemingway (his success in explaining his love/hate relationship with the writer to the boys is mixed), recognizing that “there is not and never was a single Ernest Hemingway, but rather many, many Hemingways.”

O’Brien’s own literary reputation rests on books that draw upon his combat infantry service in Vietnam, but he’s never been comfortable with the tag of “war writer,” lamenting that there is a “sting, though, to the knowledge that the worst thing that ever happened to me will determine almost the entire content of my obituary.” It’s understandable that a war in which he was such a reluctant participant still weighs heavily on his thoughts as he makes the transition from late middle to old age, sometimes shadowing the predawn hours when he first wrote many of the book’s reflections.

And yet, for all his revulsion at the “daily, nasty, grinding, lethal work of war” he experienced in Vietnam, and his hatred for the cruelty and futility of its violence, he admits that outside his family and a couple of close friends, “I am most at home and most wholly happy in the company of former members of my unit in Vietnam.”

Perhaps the best summing up of that experience is an entry that twins an almost hour-by-hour account of the battles of Lexington and Concord that began the Revolutionary War with one of O’Brien’s nighttime patrols in Quang Ngai Province in May 1969. “The events of 1775 and 1969 are not identical,” he writes. “But those events are similar in important causative, experiential, historical, and moral ways.” And when he acknowledges that he and his comrades “were terrified, but we were also full of tight, hot payback fury, especially as the dead and wounded were choppered away,” one realizes that at that moment the only thing distinguishing O’Brien and his fellow grunts of Alpha Company from the British redcoats is technology.

In keeping with O’Brien’s conception of his project as “essentially a compilation of love letters to my sons,” the final entry is an actual letter, written to Timmy and Tad from the vantage point of their father’s 100th birthday, on October 1, 2046. He imagines the brothers embarking on a round of golf on a sunlit autumn day, and concludes:

“After the golf, have a beer together.

“Look at a few photographs.

“Forgive what needs forgiving, laugh at what needs laughing, and then go home.”

For all the unassuming quality of that instruction, and the humility of Tim O’Brien’s project, DAD’S MAYBE BOOK is one that, for certain, shines with both grace and love.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 16, 2019

Dad's Maybe Book
by Tim O’Brien

  • Publication Date: May 12, 2020
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0358362784
  • ISBN-13: 9780358362784