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Vietnam recollections relive the war's surreal horror

THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

Written by Tim O'Brien.

Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence.

273 pages, $19.95.

By MARK WEBSTER

THE VIETNAM WAR has produced a new generation of writers concerned with the American experience in Vietnam. Primarily, they are former foot soldiers who were down in the mud and mess, and who are now trying to write about what they saw and felt. The best of these authors include Larry Heinemann, Philip Caputo, and Tim O'Brien.

Tim O'Brien's new book, The Things They Carried, is a highly personal collection of stories. The stories concern Tim O'Brien, a soldier 21-years-old patrolling Quang Ngai Province in Vietnam in 1968, and Tim O'Brien, a writer 43-years-old remembering the past. This is a work of fiction and, unlike a recent work (Philip Roth's Deception), O'Brien does not make himself the main character in his book simply for effect but because, as he states, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth." The surreal horror of the war in Vietnam can live again only in stories.

The stories in Vietnam are, at the same time, sharply immediate and filtered through memory. The first story, which lends its name to the book, starts as a list of the equipment that the average American foot soldier carried into battle. The list becomes longer in the end and encompasses the hopes, dreams, and fears that each man carried. The impression is one of weight, dragging them into the mud.

Another story, "How to Tell a True War Story," is an indictment of the idea of war as an honorable pursuit: "A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made victim of a very old and terrible lie."

The soldiers that O'Brien marches with are fleshed out in these stories. He describes the camaraderie that develops between men who face death together and the callousness that appears when death takes a buddy. The men laugh and joke over a body while waiting for a chopper to take it away. A soldier methodically shoots bullets into a baby water buffalo -- without killing it -- after a friend dies. Another soldier becomes paralyzed when he kills a lone Viet Cong wandering through the jungle. A friend sinks and disappears completely into a muddy field that is a nearby village's toilet. These scenes have the hallucinatory power of snapshots etched into memory.

Some of the stories don't occur in Vietnam. They tell of O'Brien's brush with courage as he almost flees to Canada; of his trying to explain his "obsession" with Vietnam to his nine-year-old daughter; and of the aftermath, the return home. The best of these is "Speaking of Courage," which chronicles the lost, aimless feeling that a vet has when he returns to his home town and the guilt he feels for not saving a buddy in the war.

In a stunning follow-up called "Notes," the author's character persona turns the story into an anguished confession. And in the final story, "The Lives of the Dead," a nine-year-old O'Brien learns the power of imagination in bringing a dead friend to life. This will have an eerie echo 34 years later when the writer brings to life his dead platoon buddies and let's a young Vietnamese soldier pass by instead of taking his life.

One or two of the stories have the magical realism that O'Brien used with such success in his award-winning Going After Cacciato. These stories don't really work in the realist framework that the author has established. However, The Things They Carried has the coherence and building narrative power of a novel. While uneven at times, it maintains the theme <>

of dreamlike and painful remembrance throughout.