Novel of the week

July, July

Tim O'Brien <em>Flamingo, 339pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0007153147

According to Tim O'Brien, July 1969 heralded "a vicious summer: frantic music, frantic sex, chemicals in the sugar, felons in the White House, predators in public places". Nothing much changes, then. Or does it? The second July of the title takes us 30 years on, to a college reunion of the previously featured "Nixon chicks", draft dodgers, beatniks and 'Nam enlistees, now a generally disillusioned bunch of characters undergoing "midlife follies". Alternating chapters between the two eras, O'Brien offers stinging dialogue - an unfortunate woman is "as ugly as North Dakota" - and sharp prose. It is breathless, bitter and designed to give you the jitters. But what leaks out of these "small, modest memories of small, modest things" is a far deeper sense of a Middle America gone ideologically idle and paranoid.

In July 1969, O'Brien's tripping hippies and vociferous Americans are energetically engaged in the issues of the day, still optimistic despite a decade of assassinations and the reality of Vietnam. One character, David Todd, is in 'Nam, and his chapter is a bloody account of an ambush that leaves him, the sole survivor from his troop, crawling down a river with horrendous injuries. O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran himself, enthrallingly captures the heat and the pain and the absolute futility of that particular conflict.

Thirty years on, his characters are heavier, homely and in their fifties. They are divorced, drunk, drifting, and the reunion reveals old flames, old wounds and new crises. O'Brien animates the key moments in the lives of these former idealists and student revolutionaries: a burglary, a drowning, drug smuggling, plenty of extramarital sex and intramarital guilt, and domestic strife and duplicity of all kinds. The reunion takes on the desperation of a last-chance saloon. For all its fire and fight, though, the novel niggles away at a greater insecurity that undermines all its characters, and probably the reader, too.

In this, O'Brien's work reads like a diluted version of Thomas Pynchon, perhaps the greatest living American writer and surveyor of all his country's insecurities. O'Brien does not have Pynchon's linguistic trickiness or his immeasurable range, but they both expertly satirise a nation afraid of its own shadow. O'Brien even has a character here who pretends to be Pynchon. He may be called Thomas Pierce, but the tribute is clear.

Though O'Brien's characters interpret their growing fears as the "terror of growing old and silly and insignificant", the author shows us how their disenchantment has turned to apathy and political lassitude. O'Brien extends their loss to the nation's body politic, which, like the characters themselves, is "in need of redefinition". In this respect, July, July is a novel about complacency and the terrors, whether personal or political, that it unwittingly invites. For that reason, if not for others, it should grip you.

This article first appeared in the 11 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Whatever happened to No Logo?