This inventive novel catalogs the lives of Minnesota's Darton Hall
College class of 1969. The chapters alternate between a narrative
of their year-late 30th reunion in the hot July of 2000 and forays
into the characters' various pasts. This technique allows us to see
them in the flower of their full-blown neuroses and then go back to
the etiology of the mess that most of their lives are in.
The chapters describing the past are sufficiently self-contained to
have their own titles and be published as short stories in The
New Yorker. Having read some of them as they came out, it was
fun to read the book and realize, hey, that's the guy who lost all
the weight and told his fiancée he was the famous reclusive
novelist Thomas Pierce. Or, oh yeah, she's the mastectomy survivor
who drank five vodka lemonades and, topless, confronted her husband
in their driveway. But there were characters entirely new to me as
well, characters whose lives and habits were next to unbelievable.
Like flashy Spook Spinelli, who lives in two different houses with
two different husbands who know about and accept each other.
Apparently even two husbands aren't enough for her, though, because
they've recently caught her with a new lover. "She was out of
control. She knew that. She needed that. Risk made her the Spook
she was, something more than the sad, mute Caroline she had been
christened. Risk kept her away from household poisons." Later in
the same chapter we discover the source of her particular
desperation, and the reason she's called Spook.
As we might expect from Tim O'Brien, whose previous works were so
defined by Vietnam, this novel features both a veteran and a
draft-dodger. David Todd's flashback to the predictably senseless
slaughter in which he suffers wounds that lead to the loss of a leg
is one of the first stories in the book. Here we are introduced to
the sardonic voice of angel Johnny Ever coming over the transistor
radio that David carries, tantalizing him with bleak views of his
future, exhorting him to choose whether to live or die. "Think it
over. No pressure. Either way, pal, nobody'd blame you." Johnny
stays with David throughout the book, with David even coming to
admit that "the man at the microphone was none other than David
himself." But to the reader Johnny remains the cynical, profane
voice of the most depraved experience: that of watching your
Is this truly meant as the "definitive novel of the baby boom
generation," as the back jacket proclaims? As a slightly younger
member of this generation I can say that few of my friends are as
gloriously disturbed as the characters in this book. Under the
glare of a novelist's pen our lives would dissolve into a puddle of
relatively boring compromise. If there were "normal" people in the
Darton Hall class of '69, Mr. O'Brien hasn't represented them in
this sharp, compassionate book.
And we probably wouldn't want to read about them. You can say a lot
of things about Spook Spinelli, but "dull" isn't one of them.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 22, 2011