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July, July
Tim O’Brien
New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
$14.00, 306 pages, ISBN 0-14-200338-7.

Janne Stigen Drangsholt
University of Bergen

Tim O’Brien’s book July, July tells the stories of a group of students who graduated from Minnesota’s Darton Hall College in 1969. At the thirtieth anniversary of their class, they reunite for a weekend of dancing, drinking and reminiscing. The novel is divided into two different types of chapters, one of which deals with the reunion party, whereas the other presents incidents from the individual lives of the college friends. Together these two forms of presentation create an accurate and multilayered portrait of a group of individuals as well as of a generation. Their lives are furthermore placed in a specific temporal setting, which emphasises the loss of innocence that has also occurred on a national level. Thus, July, July constitutes a truthful portrait of individual psyches, a generation and a period.

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.

As 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.

"Fundamental events"
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.

"Hidden patterns"
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. 278].

This 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.

"Midlife crises"
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.

"July 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.

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