A week or so ago, in those idle few minutes before I was to leave my office to teach a workshop. I picked up my copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and reacquainted myself with “On the Rainy River.” Is it a short story, an essay, or something else? The question is irrelevant because, no matter what we call it, we’re left with the same narrative, the story of a young boy named Tim O’Brien, who, after being drafted during the Vietnam War, drives north in Minnesota as far as he can before getting a cabin at the Tip Top Lodge. He spends six days there, alone, save the company of an elderly caretaker, Elroy, who’s getting the place ready for winter. O’Brien plans to go to Canada to avoid the draft, but he can’t quite work up the courage to do so. He’s torn, you see. He’s made his choice but still he’s haunted by the thought of his small town thinking him a coward. That push and pull—that’s the stuff of good stories and characters we won’t be able to forget.
At one point, Elroy asks O’Brien if he wants to go out on the Rainy River, where the old man plans to do some fishing. He stops the boat and drops his line, and O’Brien looks at the Canadian shore, and he realizes Elroy has brought him here, so he can make his move and leave the United States. Then we get this moment:
I remember staring at the old man, then at my hands, then at Canada. The shoreline was dense with brush and timber. I could see tiny red berries on the bushes. I could see a squirrel up in one of the birch trees, a big crow looking at me from a boulder along the river. That close—twenty yards—and I could see the delicate latticework of the leaves, the texture of the soil, the browned needles beneath the pines, the configurations of geology and human history. Twenty yards. I could’ve done it. I could’ve jumped and started swimming for my life. Inside me, in my chest, I felt a terrible squeezing pressure. Even now, as I write this, I can still feel that tightness. And I want you to feel it— the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier. You’re at the bow of a boat on the Rainy River. You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared, and there’s a hard squeezing pressure in your chest.
What would you do?
Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you’re leaving behind? Would it hurt? Would it feel like dying? Would you cry, as I did?
Here we are at the narrative’s tipping point—that moment of ultimate decision—and O’Brien has made it our moment as well. What would you do? This is the question at the heart of a memorable narrative, the kind we can’t forget. Indeed, what would we do in those moments when an irrevocable choice has to be made?
I remember years ago Raymond Carver, in his introduction to a volume of The Best American Short Stories, making reference to a Richard Ford story in which a teenage boy is walking on a railroad trestle when he hears a train coming. That, Carver said, was how narrative worked. Conflict, action, choices, consequences. I know this isn’t the only way a narrative can work, but I still think it’s a good way. As Carver said in that introduction, a good story is looking for that moment when it’s like you’re on the tracks, and the train is coming, and you have to decide. This is, perhaps, what brought me back to O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River.” I needed a reminder, and I want to remind you now, of stories that find these kinds of tipping points and refuse to look away. These days, when it can seem as if courage is in short supply, we can take heart from the writers who aren’t afraid to press into what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Only that, Faulkner said, is “worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
Sometimes we need to remember that stories resonate because of the choices their characters have to make, the ones they can’t avoid, the ones upon which the future depends. Maybe now, in this era of such uncertainty and discomfort, we need to take a lesson from writers like Carver, Faulkner, Ford, and O’Brien, whose last line from “On the Rainy River” is one of my favorite last lines from a narrative: “I was a coward. I went to the war.” Conflict, action, choices, consequences. How can we hope to write narratives that matter if we look away from that chain?