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Villes en ruines dans le récit de guerre américain
City Ruins in American War Narratives

The Unhomed Vietnam Veteran: “Queer Houses” in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam Works

Cristina Alsina-Rísquez


L’un des motifs récurrents de la fiction américaine consacrée à la guerre au Vietnam est le sentiment d’étrangeté qu’évoquent les soldats. Livrés à eux-mêmes dans un environnement hostile et insondable, privés des outils leur permettant de déchiffrer le paysage géographique et humain autour d’eux, la plupart des vétérans évoquent leur sentiment d’aliénation et de peur constante, une fois revenus au pays. Lorsqu’ils retournent sur le sol américain, la plupart des vétérans découvrent que leur sensation de malaise et d’étrangeté ne s’apaise pas. Ainsi, nombreux sont les textes de fiction écrits par des soldats-vétérans qui abordent directement ou indirectement les sujets du retour chez soi, du mal du pays, de l’arrachement à la terre natale ou du sentiment d’être sans terre. Cet article entend montrer que ces motifs essentiels peuvent être interprétés comme un commentaire sur les stratégies d’inclusion et d’exclusion qui caractérisent la définition de la nation comme un « chez soi ». Pour représenter le sentiment d’errance et d’arrachement à la terre natale qu’éprouvent les soldats, la fiction sur la guerre du Vietnam recourt souvent à l’une des métaphores dominantes de la littérature américaine : la maison hantée, décrépite ou en ruines. Nombreuses sont les maisons incomplètes et étranges qui ont pour fonction de représenter la guerre du Vietnam dans la littérature américaine. L’objectif principal de cet article est de proposer une contextualisation et une analyse de la manière dont les maisons “étranges”, dans la fiction de Tim O’Brien, constituent un trope permettant à l’auteur d’élaborer une « poétique du déracinement ».

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The Unhoming of the Veteran

  • 1 I want to thank the two peer reviewers of this article for the precious time they took to read it a (...)
  • 2 See Bates (1996), Melling (2007), and Spanos (2008).
  • 3 As Homi Bhabha wrote, “the unhomely moment relates the traumatic ambivalences of a personal, psychi (...)

1One of the most recurrent tropes in the US fiction emerging out of the experience of the war in Vietnam is the description of the soldier’s feelings of estrangement.1 A significant number of them share what Michael Herr describes as his “ongoing attempts at getting used to the jungle or the blow-you-out climate or the saturating strangeness of the place which didn’t lessen with exposure so often as it fattened and darkened in accumulating alienation” (19). Thrown into a hostile and unreadable landscape, deprived of the tools—linguistic and cultural—to read the geographical and human landscapes, most returning veterans narrate their feelings of alienation and constant fear in a territory which embodied the proverbial “wilderness” of the Puritan experience all over again.2 What most of the soldier-writers of the war in Vietnam portrayed as a fear-inducing, illegible jungle, with invisible enemies lurking within, was, in fact, easily naturalizable within the cultural matrix of US history. Soldiers were, thus, both at home and unhomed, to use Homi Bhabha’s formulation.3 While “in country”—as GIs used to refer to Vietnam—they longed to go back to “the World”—a totalizing term with which soldiers referred to the US. However, once back in the World, most found that their feeling of unease and estrangement did not subside. What used to be “home” they no longer recognized as such, and their feeling of homesickness found no location where it could be appeased; they found no sanctuary. It should not come as a surprise, then, that much of the fiction written by soldier-veterans tackles, directly or indirectly, the issues of home, homesickness, homelessness, and being unhomed.

  • 4 For more on this, see: Shatan (1973), Swiers (1984), Russell Smith (1985), Haines (1990), Rogin (19 (...)
  • 5 As I contend in my 2015 article “Dissent as Therapy: The Case of the Veterans of the American War i (...)

2Traditionally, cultural and literary criticism of Vietnam War fiction has analyzed those feelings of estrangement, unease, and anxiety as symptoms of the returned soldiers’ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and, thus, as symptoms of each soldier’s psychological and emotional wounds—most of the time ineffable—and of his own individual way of negotiating his reinsertion into society, when that was at all possible. This interpretation of the soldiers’ symptomatology responded to a cultural and political effort4 to elide any reading which would ascribe any degree of responsibility to the nation for the traumatized or injured state of the veterans, and to reinforce the notion that their problems were the consequence of some failure in their performance as soldiers or in their individual emotional scaffolding.5 The majority of the members of the APA (American Psychiatric Association) and the Veterans Administration at the time were inclined to believe that, in the words of psychologist Lee Robbins, “these guys were all character disorders. They came from rotten backgrounds. They were going to be malcontent and dysfunctional anyway. Vietnam just probably made them worse, but Vietnam is not the cause of their problems. They’re alcoholics and drug addicts” (qtd. in Nicosia 205). The hegemonic representations of the war were grounded in the fantasy of the Vietnam War as a deviation, as a historical anomaly. Immediately following the iconic images of the helicopter evacuation of the US embassy personnel from Saigon, the official representation of the war engaged in an exercise of willful forgetting. As Spanos, in American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization (2008), contends,

By this forgetting I do not simply mean the obliteration from the American public memory of the humiliating defeat of the most powerful military machine in the history of warfare […] I also mean […] the forgetting of the revelatory contradiction between the United States’ intervention in Vietnam in the name of a freedom always identified with the origins of the exceptionalist American national identity in the Puritans divinely ordained “errand in the wilderness” and its genocidal conduct of the war, the contradiction that delegitimized the truth discourse of American liberal capitalist democracy. (145)

3The need to flatten out that crease in the national record translated into, first, the repression of the memory of the war and, then, the efforts made by the dominant culture to recuperate a social consensus, and eventually to re-write the memory of the war with screen memories in which, to quote John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood, Part 2 (1985), “we get to win this time.” This rewriting seemed to come to a successful closure when President George Bush Sr. proclaimed the end of “the Vietnam Syndrome” after the first Gulf War in 1990.

4In line with this effort to mold the memory of the Vietnam War, these troubling events were removed from the orderly temporal narration of the nation’s official history and the bodies of the returning veterans were either effaced, or presented as aberrations. We only need to think of the proliferation in fictional accounts of the war of the character of the deranged veteran as an “abnormal” citizen incapable of reintegration as a useful, unthreatening member of society, as a man whose emotional instability, as mentioned above, was the result of mental structures which were already damaged before being exposed to the war experience, and as a dangerous individual who needed to be either drugged into passivity or shut up in an institution. When returning soldiers failed to reintegrate smoothly into society, these men were relocated into a different kind of “home,” the mental institution, which resembles “maisons closes” as defined by Maurice Blanchot, as it no longer constitutes “a marginality able to undermine society” (47) but the exact opposite: it is the location which agglutinates and contains threatening marginalities, reinforcing, therefore, the feeling of normalcy enjoyed by the rest of society. In other words, the exclusion of the PTSD-ed veteran from the accepted definition of “normal” citizenship contributed to attempts to construct a post-war consensus and to refashion the nation as a healthy, strong household with no visible cracks on its surface and no perceived weaknesses. The fact that the maladjusted veterans were left out, without giving a second thought to the nature and origin of their maladjustment, hampered their processes of reintegration while simultaneously freeing the hegemonic definitions of the shared national house from the slightest reminder of the defeat in Vietnam and the cost of the war effort. That, in turn, increased the feelings of uprootedness and homelessness experienced by the veterans. What seems to be at stake in this strategy is a decision about who is allowed to feel at home in the US. The critique underlying said question is twofold: that of the injustice inherent in the exclusion of precisely those who had put their bodies on the line, allegedly for the defense of the “home” that now shuts its doors on them; and, on top of that, the nuanced perversion of interpreting those same bodies as the element that, through their exclusion, allows for the reconfiguration of home and nation. Taking into account the bird’s-eye view of the situation of the returning veterans sketched above, I believe that the feelings of homelessness and of being unhomed expressed in the fiction written by these veterans goes beyond the limits of a personal, subjective consideration of the aftereffects of the war. They can be read as a commentary on the strategies of inclusion and exclusion, characteristic of the definition of the nation as home.

The “House” in Vietnam War Fiction: A Poetics of Uprootedness

5One of the ways Vietnam War fiction has represented the issue of homelessness and estrangement from the homeland has been to resort to one of the most pervasive metaphors in US literature: that of the imperfect, crumbling, haunted, and/or queer house. The troubled relationship of the American self with its domestic space constitutes an iterative concern of the authors and texts of American literature of all periods (from its origins to the present), irrespective of the circumstances of the writers (sex, gender, class, race, region) and the genre chosen (colonial non-fiction, short story, novel, slave narrative, poetry, drama). Significantly, Marilyn R. Chandler opens her 1991 Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction thus:

It is hardly possible to cast the mind’s eye over the broad landscape of American literature without seeing a series of imposing houses rising in curious shapes along its horizons: Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, the dreary house of Usher, the House of the Seven Gables, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Edna Pontellier’s “pigeon house,” Gatsby’s mansion, the lonely and defiant house of Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, Cheever’s suburban Cape Cods, or, more recently, the haunted white clapboard in Morrison’s Beloved. Our literature reiterates with remarkable consistency the centrality of the house in American cultural life and imagination. (1)

6In the case of the literature emerging from the Vietnam War, I follow Briganti and Mezei in suggesting that not only belonging, “but also exile, longing for home, homelessness, and homesickness are incorporated to the idea and experience of home” (6). A great number of the houses featuring in said literature are imperfect and uncanny: the apartment oppressively filled with plants in Wright’s Meditations in Green; the homicidal suburban home in Rabe’s Sticks and Bones; the haunted apartment in Heinemann’s Paco’s Story; O’Brien’s cottage in In the Lake of the Woods; the perforated, holey house in which the narrator of O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age lives; all of them are a commentary on issues of belonging and exclusion, figuring what I suggest could be called a “poetics of uprootedness.”

  • 6 “After our war, the dismembered bits / —all those pierced eyes, ear slivers, jaw splinters, / gouge (...)

7My use of the term “queer” to define some of the houses in Vietnam War fiction is informed by Mark Rifkin’s definition of the term as that which is “askew with respect to dominant, institutionalized modes of household and or family formation” (25). While the connection to identity issues related to gender and sexuality is undisputable, Rifkin’s definition is more capacious, such that the term “does not only refer us to nonnormative sexualities but to the moments in which norms fail to be reproduced” (Ahmed 198). The non-alignment with the “already-given” opens a space for the problematization of the familiar; in other words, it queers the familiar. As John Balaban so poignantly shows in “After Our War,”6 the arrival back home of the veterans of the war in Vietnam generated many uncomfortable moments of non-alignment and defamiliarization caused both by the non-normativity of their bodies and by their social maladjustment. In Ahmed’s words, “when bodies arrive that seem ‘out of place’ it involves disorientation: people blink and they look again. The proximity of such bodies makes familiar space seem strange” (135). It is my contention that Vietnam War soldier-authors explore this problematization of the familiar in particularly fruitful ways through the tropes of the strange house, the uncanny family home, and ominous domesticity.

8Besides, I believe the study of homes, houses, and dwelling places is central to understanding the fiction of the Vietnam War, not only because of how much it tells us about the way the veterans negotiated their feelings of belonging/uprootedness from the home/nation, but also because of the ways it redefines the scholarly field. It has become a commonplace among academics who work in this field to argue that the American fiction written about the war in Vietnam focuses exclusively on the day-to-day experience and duties of the individual soldier and neglects, as a consequence, any reflection on the morality or lack thereof of the war as a historical event. In 1989, Walter Höbling argued that “there is not much in the way of explicit ideological argument in most of the [Vietnam War] novels” (124). In his introduction to Vietnam War Stories: Innocence Lost (1991), Tobey C. Herzog, drawing on Thomas Myers and Philip Beidler, suggested that “the best works about Vietnam are those that move beyond battlefield realism and incorporate or play against historical, experiential, cultural, and literary connections” (13). Herzog recognizes the existence of Vietnam War literature which does engage in the “explicit ideological argument” whose existence Höbling refuted. He does, though, classify Vietnam fiction into two separate categories: those texts that concentrate on “battlefield realism,” on the one hand, and those that “incorporate historical, experiential, cultural and literary connections,” on the other. This analytical framework set a trend that has since shaped the academic approaches to Vietnam War fiction.

9We have to wait until 2015 for Susan Farrell, in “The Home Front and the Home Lines in the War Novels of Tim O’Brien,” to state that “[w]hile it is true that O’Brien’s war novels depict the ordinary lives of everyday soldiers at war—the surface details, the rituals, the banter, the dreams of escape and home—it is important to note that O’Brien is a writer who is also keenly interested in the larger moral and ethical questions surrounding war in general and the Vietnam War in particular” (116). I would argue that O’Brien, contrary to what has traditionally been said, shares this trait with a large number of the authors in Vietnam War fiction. Moreover, accurate as this description of O’Brien is, it still draws on the work of Höbling, Myers, Beidler, and Herzog in the distinction it establishes between the depiction of ordinary lives and an interest in larger ethical issues. The structure of her argument—that O’Brien’s fiction is interested in ethical and moral issues despite the fact that it deals with ordinary details of ordinary soldiers’ lives—carries on the preconceived idea that those two interests and literary focuses are exclusive.

10This line of thought seems to assume that dwelling on the common, everyday details of the experience of the soldier prevents the text from confronting complex ideological issues related with the war. In my reading of the fiction stemming from the experience of the American war in Vietnam, I contend that many of the Vietnam War writers manage to convey their political concern because of the way they deal with the domestic. It is precisely through the description and re-signification of the everyday that some authors manage to pose destabilizing questions about the system, the government, and the social structure that sent them to war. In other words, what I propose is a reconsideration of Vietnam fiction in line with Philip Beidler’s contention, in his 1982 seminal book American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, that part of the literary production about the war “seem[s] to suggest that only by bringing the war home in a literal as well as a symbolic sense, locating its reality in the domestic matrix of our collective being, can it be made to signify at all” (xiii, emphasis added). I further suggest that this process of sense-making can be fruitfully explored through focusing on the trope of the house/home, in all its multiple shapes and interpretations, and by paying attention to both the nature of the “homes” described and the choice to dwell on the domestic at a time in which the terms “house” and “home” were contested, to say the least.

11In the convoluted context of the Vietnam War era and its aftermath, the concept of “home” was central to the articulation of the movements of protest against the war and it was fraught with contradictory meanings. Therefore, it is first necessary to establish the centrality of the term “home” in the social and cultural context of the Vietnam War in order to then be able to assess the role “home” plays, narratologically and symbolically, in Vietnam War novels. On the other hand, it is interesting to dwell on what the home dreamt of by these soldier-writers in their “dreams of escape and home” (Farrell 116) looks like. The images of home are much more than nostalgic reveries of an untroubled past; rather, they exemplify the fracture of traditional understandings of home and the domestic as placid havens. That idyllic image is revealed to have already been rooted in war and conflict. In Amy Kaplan’s words: “Under the self-contained orderly home lies the anarchy of imperial conquest” (50).

Vietnam Era Homes

  • 7 This is illustrated by the fact that soldiers called Vietnam “Indian Country” and by the frequency (...)
  • 8 In doing this, Herr openly goes against the grain of the official discourses outlined above, which (...)

12As Milton J. Bates so insightfully claims in his The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling (1996), the war in Vietnam was not one war but many. According to Bates, the war stories emerging from Vietnam give us a measure of the domestic wars that were being fought in the US during and immediately after the war. He opens his study by shedding light on a trend in Vietnam fiction to compulsively reenact and reinterpret the foundational experience of the frontier. The two “conflicts” are considered to have characteristics in common: they unfolded in the wilderness, understood as any terrain that arouses feelings of bewilderment and dread, while the Vietnamese were associated with the Native Americans, not only because of what white America problematically considered their racial similarity, but also because, as in Vietnam, it was hard to distinguish between friendly and unfriendly “Indians.” The ease with which the connection between the Indian Wars of the frontier and the American war in Vietnam was established7 suggests that there is something unresolved and repressed in the frontier myth that has not allowed the country to establish a stable, unproblematic definition of the national project. Michael Herr, in his 1968 Dispatches, makes use of that analogy when trying to establish a chronology for the war, which he traces all the way back to the Puritans8 and to the genocide of Native American peoples, writing that we “might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along” and that we “might just as well lay it on the proto-Gringos who found the New England woods too raw and empty for their peace and filled them up with their own imported devils” (46).

  • 9 He reinforced the historical continuum by including a scene in which three Playboy Bunnies entertai (...)

13This idea will be repeatedly fictionalized in Vietnam War novels and films. In William Eastlake’s 1969 The Bamboo Bed, for example, the main character, Clancy, is seriously wounded in an ambush and he thinks while he lies dying: “All I remember is that I was with Custer’s Seventh Cavalry riding toward the Little Big Horn and we were struck by the Indians. After we crossed the Rosebud we made it to the Ridge Red Boy and then we were hit. No. I must have my wars confused. That was another time, another place. Other Indians” (23). Francis Ford Coppola, when faced with the challenge of putting together a film about the war, opted for an adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the novella about European colonialism in Africa, for his Apocalypse Now, a film about American imperialism.9 These are just two of the many examples of the parallelisms between the Frontier and Indian Wars and the War in Vietnam, parallelisms that Slotkin, in 1971, had already analyzed as

the recurrence of a particular pattern of imagery and dramatic structures: the parallels between Indian and Vietnamese warfare, the racialization of the conflict between two nations or systems which makes reconciliation or recognition of humanity difficult, the association of the racial enemy with tendencies in one’s own mind and culture that are thought of as subversive or morally suspect. (57-58)

14All in all, in Bates’ words, “[i]t would not be far-fetched to say that for those who opposed the war as well as for those who were responsible for fighting it, Vietnam was not a foreign war at all. It was a domestic cultural conflict of long standing, an American Western displaced onto alien soil” (33). In line with this, the Vietnam War prompted academics, fiction writers, filmmakers, and thinkers to consider the role of the Puritan legacy in the lead-up to the war in Vietnam and very clear links were drawn between early definitions of the nation as home and those emerging from the battlefields of Vietnam. The problematization of the nation as home that emerges from the comparison raises questions, on the one hand, about the way the US relates to the peoples it encounters in its expansion and consequent, and constant, (re)definition as a nation—the nation understood as a “home” in “dialogue” with other homes/nations—and, on the other, about the way individuals renegotiate their sense of belonging to their own home/nation after their engagement in acts of violence against others.

15The evaluation of this sense of estrangement from “home” was particularly pressing during the fierce countercultural New Left struggles to bring about a new definition of “home,” on what historians have aptly and significantly termed “the home front” of the war, which articulated itself around different cultural and social conflicts: “the war between black and white Americans, the war between lower classes and the upper, the war between men and women, and the war between the younger generation and the older” (Bates 5). In what Bates calls the “race war,” the country witnessed the emergence of the understanding that, for African Americans, the myths emerging from the “middle passage” and “slavery”—and not the white man’s myth of the frontier—should be the ones shaping the nature of their sense of belonging to or alienation from the home/nation. That brought with it a surge, among black soldiers and civil rights activists in general, of a feeling of proximity to the Vietnamese and a distancing from the white US administration, in line with Martin Luther King’s observation that black soldiers were being sent

eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. (King 101-102)

16The African Americans fighting in Vietnam started wondering whether they should withdraw their loyalty from the land of their birth and start pledging it to their own people and community instead, an internationalist community that included all the colored, oppressed peoples of the world. Unquestionably, the emergence of this “community of choice”—to borrow Blanchot’s terminology in The Unavowable Community—within the boundaries of the home/nation demanded a redefinition of the concepts of home and nation.

17Moreover, the country that had traditionally thought of itself as a “classless society” was witness to how the war also laid bare the class injustice on which the edifice of the home/nation had been built. The working class was being used to fight the war in inordinately high numbers. “Class bias prevented the antiwar middle class from recognizing kindred sentiments in the working class” (Bates 88) and that oversight opened a rift in the country and posed another problem to the definition of the home in the “home front.” Class, even more than race—though the two more often than not went hand in hand—shaped a young man’s chances of being drafted. Draft counselors became, in effect, agents of government pacification, disarming the antagonism of the higher classes by keeping their children out of the war and establishing a clear class line between the lives the nation considered worth grieving and those it considered could be sacrificed for the “common good.” As Judith Butler would theorize later in relation to a completely different war which, significantly and worryingly, unveiled exactly the same class divide as the war fought in Vietnam, “[w]e might think of war as dividing populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all” (38). This distinction not only separated the US soldiers from the enemy soldiers, as would be expected in a war situation—even if this dehumanization also entails serious moral problems—but also the US men who got sent to war from those who could dodge the bullet, literally and metaphorically. Most of those working-class, uneducated, underprivileged, and, more likely than not, racialized soldiers who did get sent to the war developed a stronger bond of kinship with enemy soldiers—who were also “in the jungle” and tended to be perceived as poor peasants fighting for their homes—than with rear-echelon Americans living in the bases. Philip Caputo accurately reflects this in A Rumor of War:

We ate lunch. Our rations were the same as the Viet Cong’s: cooked rice rolled into a ball and stuffed with raisins […]. Eating the rice on that desolate hill, it occurred to me that we were becoming more and more like our enemy. We ate what they ate. We could now move through the jungle as stealthily as they. We endured common miseries. In fact, we had more in common with the Viet Cong that we did with the army of clerks and staff officers in the rear. (262)

  • 10 For more on these class conflicts and inequities, see Christian Appy’s Working Class War: American (...)

18This evolved into a war-within-a-war situation: desertion, sabotage, use of drugs, mutinies, work stoppages, and occasional violence against supervisors and managers. Combat was compared to hard labor in its sustained assault on mind and body, linking this war to all the other forms of labor abuse in US history.10 In this respect, Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story offers a remarkable example of this comparison as, on several occasions in the novel, Paco’s thorough description of his work at the diner The Texas Lunch serves as a trigger for his memories of his “work” in the war: “cleaning the grease trap never fails to remind Paco of that day and a half he spent by himself at Fire Base Harriette—it is the stink, the stench of many well-rotted human corpses” (116).

19The problematization of the nation as “home” that results from the revealing of these mechanisms of exclusion along racial and class divides lead some of the soldier-writers to focus on how the family home reproduced the workings of this macro structure of power. A considerable part of Vietnam War fiction dwells on the hegemonic social structure on which the very idea of nationhood hinges: the traditional, hetero-normative, reproductive family and the hegemonic models of masculinity and femininity on which it depends. Indeed, the counter-culture movement of the 1970s, when the war in Vietnam was being fought, considered that “the typical American family ought to be considered one of the contributing factors in the [Vietnam] war and, perhaps, western militarism in general” (Berg and Rowe 3). However, most Vietnam War novels were being published in the 1980s and, by then, the Reagan administration had popularized the opposing belief that the national failure in Vietnam would not have taken place had the nuclear family not been under attack from the New Left activists. This ideological asynchronism might explain the tepid reception of some of these novels.

  • 11 The play becomes, therefore, an example of the representation of the incrustation of the war in sub (...)

20One of the clearest examples of the fictional representation of the house as the location of a criminal ideology is to be found in David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones (1971). The play is set in a suburban house and it features Harriet, Ozzie, David, and Ricky, replicas of the main characters in the wildly famous soap opera from the 1950s, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Rabe’s dark parody of the soap opera showed its viewers how the Nelsons, a typical American, middle class, nuclear family, faced the problems of having to deal with their son David coming back from Vietnam blind and with serious emotional problems. The family, far from being the haven that offers sanctuary and healing, becomes yet another alienating force incapable of dealing with his pain.11 In the end, for the members of the family to survive, they need to deny “that David is there: he is no longer a real member of the family since he does not conform to the family’s ideology of what is real. […] David must be sacrificed in order to restore the image of family cohesion that opens the play” (McDonald 214). The only way to do that is to help David kill himself in one of the uncanniest scenes in Vietnam War fiction. The family gathers together as if getting ready to have a TV dinner. After Rick has told David that “I just gotta say my honest true feelings, and I’d kill myself if I were you, Dave. You’re in too much misery. I’d cut my wrists. Honestly speaking, brother to brother, you should have done it long ago” (Rabe 173), they then engage in a choreography that will end in David’s execution. Rick offers David his razor blade and promises it will not hurt; Harriet tells him nobody is going to hear his agonizing cries because the streets are deserted, and she brings him towels and a washbowl to collect the blood and prevent it from staining the carpet or the sofa; Ozzie reassures him it is the best thing he can do. David sits down, cuts his wrists and, while he is waiting to die, confesses he had had every intention of killing them all; but instead, it is the implacability of the nuclear family that puts an end to his life.

21In short, the struggle in the streets over the war in Vietnam plunged a profoundly racist, sexist, and classist society into a long-needed debate on issues of belonging, appropriateness, and legitimacy, a debate that redefined the boundaries of home/nation. What was thus laid bare was the structural discrimination between those who occupied the family house and those made to live in the barracks, the slave shacks, the trailer parks, and homeless shelters, bringing to the fore the problematization of the home/nation that emerges when we raise the question of entitlement. The fiction of the Vietnam War echoes this preoccupation by offering centrality to the trope of the troubled, the uncanny or the queer house.

Queer Houses in O’Brien’s Fiction

  • 12 What follows is a first approach to the study of the “poetics of uprootedness” in O’Brien’s fiction (...)

22As I have tried to establish, the trope of the house/home is central to the project of sense-making of the Vietnam experience by some of the most widely celebrated Vietnam war soldier-authors. Tim O’Brien is a case in point.12 His “dreams of home” are elaborate from the beginning of his career and differentiate him from other Vietnam soldier-authors whose literary production is more dependent on the attempt to truthfully describe the memories of the war experience itself. In his literary production, O’Brien, to quote Beidler, “forges the link between personal witness and larger visions of history and culture” (143) by freeing his imagination from the obligation of documentary truthfulness, and by insistently working in certain core tropes, metaphors, and ideas to convey some transcendent, universal truth about the human soul. In what follows, I will be outlining those “dreams of home” in some of O’Brien’s literary production in order to trace the evolution of the ideas developed, which climaxes in In the Lake of the Woods and The Nuclear Age, although it begins in his very early texts.

23If I Die in a Combat Zone establishes a trend that O’Brien will follow throughout: that of placing the warm domestic relationship that offers sanctuary from the war in the least expected places. In this combat memoir, O’Brien’s fictional alter ego and his fellow soldier Erik Hansen find their “home” in their shared love of philosophy and literature:

We [Erik and I] found a private place to talk, out behind the barracks. There was a log there. It was twice the thickness of an ordinary telephone pole and perhaps a fourth of its length, and on an afternoon in September Erik and I were sitting on that log, polishing boots, cleaning out M-14s and talking poetry. It was a fine log, and useful. We used it for a podium and as a soapbox. It was a confessional and a shoeshine stand. (1995 44)

A log and language become “home,” a home whose being in the open, “out behind the barracks,” and not under a roof is insisted upon.

24O’Brien presents a very similar appreciation of language as “home” in Going after Cacciato, a novel dedicated to Erik Hansen, the friend in If I Die in a Combat Zone. The main character, Paul Berlin, is a divided character; a soldier who, while trying to behave honorably, is also trying to imagine domestic peace in the middle of a chaotic war. He does so through engaging in a complex exercise of fictionalization which takes place at an observation post during his night watch and which, significantly, leads Berlin’s platoon to Paris to participate in the Peace Talks so as to “develop a common vision of happiness” (1988 300). Berlin’s story-telling is triggered by the need to re-write both a panic attack which he experiences in the middle of combat and the fragging or assassination of Lieutenant Sidney Martin, both of them repressed memories that keep working their way into Berlin’s narrative and which become bearable to him only by being inserted into the familiar comfort space of language and imagination. The fantastic counterfactual world which Berlin invents from his observation post, and which takes up the bulk of the novel, is the needed place of comfort and safety that allows him to face the fact that

  • 13 In In the Lake of the Woods, this fictionalizing exercise, which provides comfort and protection fr (...)

Billy Boy Watkins, like the others, was among the dead. It was the simple truth. It was not especially terrible, or hard to think about, or even sad. It was a fact. It was the first fact, and leading from it were other facts. Now it was merely a matter of following the facts to where they ended. (1988 211)13

25Apart from this more abstract approach to the trope of “home,” instances of what can be considered real, traditional homes also figure prominently in Berlin’s narrative. Significantly, they are mainly linked to Berlin’s father who, in his son’s memory, plays the ambivalent role of both a witness—and hence a figure of comfort as he is attendant to the working through of trauma—and a judge—embodying both his role as the head of the family and a surrogate figure for the nation, meaning that he is portrayed as co-responsible for the socio-economic and ideological conditions that had led his son to the war and to experiencing the traumatic events that he now needs to work through. Berlin’s father, who had started a home-building business after returning home, victorious, from World War II, looms large over Paul Berlin’s life, as he imagines a future in which his father passes severe judgement on him for having failed as a warrior and, thus, problematizes Berlin’s transition into adulthood. Paul Berlin, before the war, had imagined a future in which he continued his father’s business as a home builder; but, unlike his father, the son lacks the conviction that leads to violent heroism and wishes to skip the part of being a home destroyer in the war before settling down to building houses. The father—and through him, the nation—is there to remind him of the impossibility of that former life choice, and that sacrifice is unavoidable in the configuration of masculinity in the US. Thus, the novel unveils the link of codependency between what, only apparently, looks like two separate worlds: the comfort of home and the horror of war.

26This theme of the unsettling violence exercised by “home” is further explored by the author in The Things They Carried. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” Bob (Rat) Kiley writes a letter to the sister of one of his friends who has been killed in action. The letter, according to the narrator, is “terrific,” “very personal and touching” (1991 75); it tackles the war honestly—“how her brother made the war seem almost fun, always raising hell and lighting up villes and bringing smoke to bear every which way” (75). It is also a love letter in which Rat confesses he “loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the world. They were like soul mates, he says, like twins or something” (76). But “the dumb cooze never writes back” (1991 76), the sister (presumably) shocked into silence by this declaration. The story closes with a second “dumb cooze” who fails to understand the war stories O’Brien, through his character, tells because “she wasn’t listening” (90). These failures to respond, listen, or understand are read as an act of violence exercised by the home front. Contrary to what might be expected, and out of a disturbing voyeuristic desire to experience the horrors of war vicariously from the comfort of their sitting-rooms, the people back home are interested in (gory) detail. However, they do not respond appropriately to the fact that the story told by soldier-author O’Brien is not only about the violent and traumatizing nature of combat, but is also “a love story”, and that “in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight…It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen” (91). At the heart of the domestic lurks a perversely violent streak; wars can, on the other hand, generate love relationships and beauty, too. The borders between the two are compromised, and the alleged innocence of the home is jeopardized.

27Another way of narratologically blurring the borders between love and violence is by featuring the destructive love of men who want to become one with their loved ones, fuse themselves with them even at the cost of death. “One plus one equals zero” (1995 61), the main character, John Wade, keeps repeating in In the Lake of the Woods, an idea associated, in his mind, with the image of two snakes eating each other’s tails:

He compared their [his and his future wife’s, Kathy] love to a pair of snakes he’d seen along a trail near Pinkville, each snake eating the other’s tail, a bizarre circle of appetites that brought their heads closer and closer until one of the men in Charlie Company used a machete to end it. “That’s how our love feels,” John wrote, “like we’re swallowing each other up, except in a good way, […], and I can’t wait to get home and see what would’ve happened if those two dumbass snakes finally ate each other’s heads. Think about it. The mathematics get weird.” (61)

  • 14 It is significant that one of the hypotheses offered by the narrative voice to explain Kathy’s disa (...)

28John feels a voracious desire to incorporate Kathy and also a strong need to be incorporated by her, to crawl perversely into her womb: “There were times when John Wade wanted to open up Kathy’s belly and crawl inside and stay there forever. He wanted to swim through her blood and climb up and down her spine and drink from her ovaries and press his gums against the firm red muscle of her heart. He wanted to suture their lives together” (71). The expression of extreme, complete love entails self-annihilation and murder and conjures up fantasies of war-related carnage.14 Moreover, John Wade’s murderous experience in Vietnam engenders the need to cling to love. The novel gravitates, therefore, around the impossibility of dissociating the love of the “home self” from the violence of the “war self” as both are perceived as equally murderous and tenderhearted. This paradox is further insisted upon as the novel poses two alternatives, which turn out to be complements: whether John Wade’s childhood and family life made him capable of and even prone to committing war time atrocities; or whether it was the atrocities committed in war that affected his post-war domestic life with Kathy, turning it into a nightmarish ordeal. In one of the early entries from the interviews the narrator of the story conducted to investigate John Wade’s past, Wade’s mother says: “It wasn’t just the war that made him what he was. That’s too easy. It was everything—his whole nature…” (27).

29Moreover, the events of In the Lake of the Woods unfold in a cottage which John and Kathy have rented to escape the aftermath of the political scandal that follows the discovery, in the middle of his campaign for the US Senate, of John’s participation in the My Lai massacre of civilians. The cottage is supposed to be the place where they will take refuge, will find time “to be together” (1), but its remoteness —“there were no roads at all. There were no towns and no people” (1)— turns it into a prison or a coffin, haunted by memories of the past and speculations about an uncertain future; it turns into the scene, possibly, of a love crime. Interestingly, the cottage is referenced but not described. Only the wilderness that surrounds it and the fog that closes in on it from the lake receive the attention of the narrative voice. That wilderness is what triggers the “dreams of domesticity,” a domesticity which, as we will also see in The Nuclear Age, only becomes desirable and life-sustaining once it has been lost:

Lying still under their blankets, they would take turns thinking up names for the children they wanted […] and then later they would plan the furnishings for their new house, the fine rugs they would buy, the antique brass lamps, the exact colors of the wallpaper, all the details, how they would be sure to have a giant sun porch and a stone fireplace and a library with tall walnut bookcases and a sliding ladder. (1995 2)

30The cottage itself, however, “had a fragile, hollowed-out quality, a suspended feeling, and […] a great liquid silence seemed to flow in from the woods and curl up around their bodies” (16). Their chosen place of refuge offers no solace; the only consolation is in their imagination and longing for the bliss of domesticity. This structure is taken up again in The Nuclear Age, where it is fully fleshed out.

31In O’Brien’s 1996 novel, William Cowling, an anti-war, under-cover warrior in his youth who, at the time the novel starts, is attempting—not very successfully—to live the life of the stereotypical head of a heteronormative family, is keeping his wife and daughter captive in their own home-turned-prison, while he digs a hole in the garden for a nuclear shelter, “a place to ride out the bad times” (1996 149). The house has become the location of fear and anxiety where the nuclear family is, literally and metaphorically, entrapped; the hole in the ground, which greatly resembles a grave, becomes the only, though unlikely, space of comfort. Gradually, love turns into a desire for annihilation: “I would climb through the window and take them to me and crush them with love” (129, emphasis added); “I want to nail our hearts together. I want no space between us. I want wholeness, without separation. I want it all now and forever” (297). Love grows until it cancels the space between love and hate, life and death, preservation and annihilation, care and violence.

32William’s behavior towards his wife Bobbi and his daughter Melinda is one of the ways the novel metaphorizes the destructiveness which lurks behind dreams of love and domesticity. These freak displacements of scenes of love and hate reveal the home as the place where the heart is, but also where it lashes out; it is the place we crave, but also the setting of our worst nightmares. The new house/hole in the ground is also haunted by a secret criminal desire and it speaks out, quite literally, its demands and discontents: once Bobbi and Melinda have been lowered into it while in a state of drugged stupor, the hole orders: “Star light, star bright! Shut me up with dynamite!” (296). The hole which William started digging as a way to address and perhaps resolve his sociopathic need for safety—“‘It’s a shelter’ […] ‘a place to hide’” (5); “It’ll be home”( 7)—ends up voicing the homicidal urge at the heart of any “normal household in an age of abiding normalcy” (7). In the novel, the hole is William’s attempt at domesticity, an attempt that goes awry and turns him into an agonizing, safety-obsessed killer, a contradiction in terms with potentially lethal outcomes. When he has a home, he almost becomes a killer.

33Before his attempt at domesticity, William had a life of underground activity and code names, of guerrilla opposition to the state and the war, weapons, and military training—yet another paradox, that of the murderous anti-war protester for whom having a home and growing emotional attachments were dreams that were not for him to fulfill. O’Brien emphasizes the constructed nature of that yearning for home by materializing it in a leaflet advertising holiday homes in Rio onto which Sarah, a fellow undercover fighter, projects her dream of a suburban existence and children, a dream that becomes more and more idealized with each inevitable postponement. But Sarah will continue with her guerrilla activities after William has already abandoned them and, interestingly, she will only go home to die. For her, homes are only life-sustaining if they remain spectral presences, idealizations to dream about and defer; actual homes are coffins. William will come to the same realization later in life when he boards up his wife and daughter in the couple’s bedroom, and then saves them from dying there by literally burying them, this time, underground, in the hole he perceives as home. As such, “private and public, past and present, the psyche and the social develop an interstitial intimacy. It is an intimacy that questions binary divisions through which such spheres of social experience are often spatially opposed” (Bhabha 148): home holds war at its bosom, while war is fueled and sustained by a dream of home.

34I conclude, then, that the study of O’Brien’s houses/homes reveals that the (im)possibility of belonging is a core concern of the writer in all of his fiction. Any configuration of the trope of the house/home seems to frustrate the characters’ desire to belong. O’Brien’s characters are precariously balanced at the crossroads between, on the one hand, normative domesticity, the longed-for space of warmth and safety which gradually becomes a lethal, destructive place; and on the other, unexpected, apparently inhospitable locations which gradually transit towards becoming the only places where the self, paradoxically, feels “at home,” but from which the characters are forced by convention to want to separate themselves. As such, the feeling of home is either attached to precarious locations that cannot be sustained over time, partly because of their exposure to the elements—the cottage in The Lake of the Woods and the hole in The Nuclear Age—or evoked by musings and fantasies about conventional domesticity in those moments when the characters are most radically deprived of it—John and Kathy Wade’s detailed dreams of their future home; William Cowling’s dreams of domesticity while an underground warrior against the war. If that domesticity is ever achieved—as happens in The Nuclear Age—it soon, however, turns into a threatening location that shows the homicidal urge at the heart of any conventional household. The comforts and the demands of the home end up pushing O’Brien’s characters out in the open again, towards an outdoors that can offer consolation but is also the place where the dreams of home and family companionship begin once more, impelling the characters to start the cycle all over again.

35This tension points to the fact that homes are life-sustaining only when they are a figment of the characters’ imaginations. Not surprisingly, in O’Brien’s work there is a continued defense of fantasy, fiction, and language as the only places to hide from the aggressions of the world: poetry in If I Die in a Combat Zone, Berlin’s fictionalization exercise in Going After Cacciato, John Wade’s magic tricks in In the Lake of the Woods. It also suggests that houses are the locations where the codependency of home and war becomes evident. There exists a fluctuation between those two apparently irreconcilable places, the space of gruesome destruction and that of love and care: a pendulum movement that unites them at the same time that it separates them as the two constitutive elements of the same structure. Home generates the violence that leads to aggression and war, and the exposure to said violence generates, in turn, dreams of home. O’Brien’s novels are not so much about the brutalizing effect of war on people—the way the war infects the domestic realm—as about the fact that people are inherently brutal and the domestic can be a homicidal structure:

Now, at this instant, we share the knowledge that there is no mercy between fathers and daughters. We will kill for our children. Our children will kill for us. We will kill for families. And above all we will kill for love, as men have always killed. Crimes of passion. As terrorists kill. As soldiers kill for love of honor and love of country. Just love. And when there is no love, there is nothing worth dying for, only nothing […]. (1996 308)

36This displacement of the scenes of love/life and hate/death provides us with a hermeneutic key to re-evaluate both the houses and the places identified as home in O’Brien’s fiction. This oscillation between haunted homes and desolate refuges, and also between home self and war self, is what I would like to call a “poetics of uprootedness.” I contend that this poetics is what articulates the totality of O’Brien’s literary project and opens a new, uncharted avenue of analysis of a literary production that has traditionally been read either from the perspective of trauma studies or from a biographic, documentary perspective on the novel as a source of historical information.

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1 I want to thank the two peer reviewers of this article for the precious time they took to read it and for their insights and generous suggestions.

2 See Bates (1996), Melling (2007), and Spanos (2008).

3 As Homi Bhabha wrote, “the unhomely moment relates the traumatic ambivalences of a personal, psychic history to the wider disjunctions of political existence” (1994, 11).

4 For more on this, see: Shatan (1973), Swiers (1984), Russell Smith (1985), Haines (1990), Rogin (1993), Lembcke (1998), and Friedman (2002).

5 As I contend in my 2015 article “Dissent as Therapy: The Case of the Veterans of the American War in Vietnam,” “Symptomatic of the efforts of the establishment to dodge responsibility are the difficulties people like Chaim Shatan and Sarah Paley—two of the most successful therapists for Vietnam veterans […]—had in getting the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to accept the inclusion of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the third edition of APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM III). According to Matthew J. Friedman, the main objection the APA had against the inclusion was that, in the definition of PTSD, ‘the etiological agent was outside the individual him or herself (i.e., the traumatic event) rather than an inherent individual weakness’ (2007, 1). The acceptance of that premise would allow for an interpretation of the veterans’ psychological problems that identified combat experience as the etiological agent and, therefore, force the Veterans Administration to defray the expenses of any treatment these men might need” (Alsina Rísquez 110).

6 “After our war, the dismembered bits / —all those pierced eyes, ear slivers, jaw splinters, / gouged lips, odd tibias, skin flaps, and toes— / came squinting, wobbling, jabbering back. […] Since all things naturally return to their source, / these snags and tatters arrived, with immigrant uncertainty, / in the United States. It was almost home. […] [A]nd this is why handshakes are often unpleasant, / why it is better, sometimes, not to look another in the eye” (Balaban 41).

7 This is illustrated by the fact that soldiers called Vietnam “Indian Country” and by the frequency with which that trope is used in cultural artifacts of all sorts and as ideologically different as Apocalypse Now and Rambo.

8 In doing this, Herr openly goes against the grain of the official discourses outlined above, which were trying to establish the war not as historical continuity—as Herr does— but as an anomaly.

9 He reinforced the historical continuum by including a scene in which three Playboy Bunnies entertain the soldiers dressed as a Cowgirl, an Indian, and a Cavalry Officer.

10 For more on these class conflicts and inequities, see Christian Appy’s Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993).

11 The play becomes, therefore, an example of the representation of the incrustation of the war in suburban America similar to that in Martha Rösler’s photograph series Bringing the War Home (1967-1972).

12 What follows is a first approach to the study of the “poetics of uprootedness” in O’Brien’s fiction, which attempts to open paths for future interpretations of his fiction and of Vietnam literature in general.

13 In In the Lake of the Woods, this fictionalizing exercise, which provides comfort and protection from the aggressions of the world, will be transformed into the magic tricks that John Wade performs: “In the mirror, where miracles happened, John was no longer a lonely little kid. Quick and graceful, his hands did things ordinary hands could not do—palm a cigarette lighter, cut a deck of cards with a turn of the thumb. Everything was possible, even happiness” (1995 65).

14 It is significant that one of the hypotheses offered by the narrative voice to explain Kathy’s disappearance is that John killed her by throwing boiling water at her and watching her die in agony “because he loved her” (1996 273). The domestic violence echoes the massacre of women and children in My Lai at the same time that what motivates it reinforces the link between love and violence.

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Cristina Alsina-Rísquez, « The Unhomed Vietnam Veteran: “Queer Houses” in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam Works »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2022, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Cristina Alsina-Rísquez

Universitat de Barcelona

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