The novel starts out with two of the old
friends, Amy Robinson and Jan Huebner, sharing gossip about a classmate,
Karen Burns, who has been killed. The presentation
of the characters with both names is a defamiliarizing technique
that is upheld throughout in the chapters dealing with the reunion.
The same method is found in the narrator’s refusal to individualise
characters that do not belong to the circle of friends. Some of
the people at the party are persistently referred to as “a
well-known physician” and “a mother of three, formerly
a basketball star” [p. 136]. This technique creates the
feeling of looking through a yearbook. The narrator focuses
on the accomplishments and scandals that can be attributed to the
former students, and refuses to penetrate
into a deeper layer of self. Thus, gossip, memories and former
and present allegiances are the things that connect the characters
in these chapters.
a counterpart to this superficial rendering, however, the
novel’s descriptions of each of the characters in exclusive
chapters incorporate hidden patterns that connect the friends
in a more fundamental manner. Here, individual lives are connected
through phrases and symbols that are repeated and expanded throughout
the novel. These patterns are also employed to broaden the
spectres of selfhood. Each of the friends is presented through
an event that constitutes one defining moment in her/his life, and
we see how incidents mentioned in the graduation party-chapters
have deeper meaning. The dialectic
between these two modes of presentation in fact constitutes the
key to the novel’s seamless juxtaposition of factional
incidents and fictional psyches.
Like Don DeLillo’s Underworld, July, July to a large extent connects the lives of individual characters through
outer events, such as Armstrong’s first steps on the moon
or the Vietnam war. Thus, the war is a formative event in many of
the characters’ lives. The chapters devoted to David Todd
and Billy McMann are both framed by
the Vietnam war. Billy McMann fled to Canada in order to avoid enlistment,
while David Todd was badly wounded. David Todd’s experience
of the war is hinted at already in the first graduation party chapter,
when he retreats to his room in order to take drugs that “[carry]
him away to a shallow, fast-moving river called the Song Tra Ky” [p. 14]. In the chapter “July
69” we are presented with the rendition of the entire episode.
As he lies wounded by the river and is about to die, David Todd
hears a voice that calls itself Johnny Ever: ‘”Call
me Cassandra,” Johnny Ever was saying. “Crummy pay,
no overtime, but I take it super serious”’ [p. 42].
This voice has stayed with David Todd right until the present
moment of the graduation party. Johnny Ever claims to be the voice
of truth, but rather appears to constitute a manifestation of guilt
from being the sole survivor of the attack at Song Tra Ky.
His voice signifies David Todd’s
tendency to always expect the worst, a character flaw that to a
large extent seems to have controlled his life.
As a literary technique, Johnny Ever also
represents an example of another way of connecting the characters.
As mentioned above, the novel incorporates phrases, symbols or themes
that are repeated in connection with many of the characters. This
strategy creates interesting patterns that connect the individual
lives in a manner that goes deeper than the
outer events. One of the most developed
themes in the novel, is a recurrent belief in fate or luck.
Many of the characters have neglected to take control of their own
lives by subscribing important events and experiences to luck—or
the lack of it. The persistent voice of Johnny Ever has
lead David Todd to regard his life as more or less preordained.
Thus, when the love of his life, Marla, walks out on him, she merely
fulfils Johnny Ever’s prophecy: ”Sorry to bear the bad
news, but you’re in for the standard Jezebel stuff. Old as
the crocodiles. Marla tells you how terrific you are, how you’re
the love of her life, then one day she takes of
with this slick stockbroker on a Harley” [p. 32]. What these
characters need to realise, it seems, is that although life is governed
by choices, nothing is predetermined: “Marla took her hand
from his arm. [...] “I love you,” she said quietly,
“but when you suppose from the start that everything’s
fake and rotten and doomed... Then it is doomed”’ [p.
dialectic between a belief in the inevitability of disaster and the idea of
freedom of will is one of the many strengths of this novel. It creates
a dynamic where events seem predetermined
to a large extent by the workings of fate at the same time as everything
(and everyone) is forever in motion. Although Johnny Ever does hold
an uncanny knowledge of the future, it seems that David Todd has
always had the possibility of proving him wrong, were he to take
his fate into his own hands.
On another level the novel is also
a succinct representation of people who have suddenly reached middle-age
and who wonder where their youth went. The defining moment in each
of the characters’ lives lies in the epoch celebrated by the
graduation party. It seems that this period incorporates the formative
moment, when each of the characters makes a choice or experiences
something that to a large extent decides the
direction of his or her life. At the same time, however,
the onrush of middle-age forces these people to rethink the inevitability
of these choices. The thought that seems to enter their minds is
that maybe life hasn’t been decided once and for all. This
recognition is, of course, something that designates the fifty-something
generation. Whereas the generation before them made their choices
early in life, the class of 69ers are
in a position where midlife to a large extent represents the beginning
of something new. They change careers, partners and lifestyles in
a manner that was unavailable to earlier
generations. Thus, this book is also a valuable portrait of a generation
who are able to pick and choose if
they can only free themselves from the bonds of tradition.
now, July always"
O’Brien’s narrative strategy that consists in juxtaposing
the past and the present reaches its zenith in the final pages of
the book. July, July ends by presenting short passages
on each of the characters, who have now formed pairs and are trying
to plan a future together. The narration
is simultaneous and urgent: “Not ten seconds had passed. Marv
and Spook were at thirty-two thousand feet over north-eastern Colorado.
A Twin Cities physician and a mother of three, once a basketball
star, played make-believe in a ground-floor dorm room” [p. 303].
This narrative strategy creates a feeling
of now that draws together all the meditations on time and
memory throughout the novel. The feeling of immediacy and truthfulness
that Tim O’Brien is able to create in these final pages consolidates July, July as a memorable novel. Although it is clearly
a study of a certain generation in a specific time and place, its
strength lies in the meditations on the mechanisms and elements
of existence that create destinies and tie people together with
bonds that cannot so easily be broken.