It's been almost 20 years since Lawrence Kasdan's movie The Big Chill brought together a group of once-idealistic '60s types for a fun-filled weekend of mourning and recriminations. If you remember that 30-something gang as cynical and disillusioned, wait till you meet their 50-something counterparts in Tim O'Brien's engaging new novel, July, July.
The occasion for this regret-filled gathering is a 30th reunion at a small college in St. Paul, Minnesota. Like all reunions (but especially those in novels and movies), the event gives the assembled characters the chance to take stock of their lives. As it turns out, everyone in July, July has been disappointed by the way things have turned out.
The narrative moves between the reunion, held on a muggy Midwestern weekend in July 2000, and another July right after graduation, when the '60s were in full tumult. It was during that earlier July that two of the assembled alums became direct casualties of the dual conflicts in Southeast Asia and at home. David Todd, who once had major league baseball prospects, went to Vietnam. He came home minus a leg and plagued by flashbacks. Billy McMann burned his draft card and headed north to Winnipeg, losing his Republican girlfriend, Dorothy Stier, in the bargain.
Of all the characters in the novel, David and Billy are O'Brien's best creations, because between them they represent the choice that so many young men had to make back then. And each of their stories proves that, in the end, neither choice was really a winner. O'Brien, who won the National Book Award for his Vietnam novel Going After Cacciato, is one of the most celebrated writers of the generation who fought in or against the war in Vietnam, and he does a deft job here of conveying the confusion and terror that David and Billy endured.
The third man of the group, Marv Bertel, seems to have escaped any permanent scarring from the '60s, but he has his own secret sorrows. As do all the women. Some are housewives, some have careers, and none is particularly happy. Marla Dempsey, David's ex-wife, believes she is incapable of love and has the track record to back up her fear. Amy Robinson and Jan Huebner are embittered divorcees, while Spook Spinelli has <I>two</I> husbands and seems to be trying for a third. Prim and proper Dorothy, battling breast cancer, must fend off Billy's still-simmering resentment. And Ellie Abbott is haunted by the drowning death of her lover, Harmon Osterberg.
Harmon is one of two classmates whose deaths the group mourns. The other is Karen Burns, who was murdered not long ago. Though a memorial service for the two classmates anchors the weekend, the grieving is not really about the dead. It is about opportunities missed or squandered by those still living, and the indisputable fact that for all their former idealism or perhaps because of it their lives have not gone as planned.
The Baby Boom generation has long been accused of being self-centered, and O'Brien doesn't do much here to dissuade readers who might hold that opinion. Still, while July, July abounds in discontentment, it is never maudlin. The characters, though middle-aged, still carry with them some measure of their youthful dreams. "The turbulent world of their youth had receded like some idle threat or long-lapsed promise," O'Brien writes near the close of the novel. "But still, as with . . . several million other survivors of their times, there would also be the essential renewing fantasy of splendid things to come." A promise of possibilities, no matter how tenuous, still sparks the sexual and emotional couplings into which they fall.
While the wisest among them have adopted a kind of cautious optimism, even the most foolish in the group would freely admit their individual and collective foolishness. And it is this clear-sightedness that makes <B>July, July</B> more than just a eulogy for the 1960s. The ways in which O'Brien portrays his generation might strike some as unflattering, but he refuses to shy away from the wreckage these characters have left in their wakes. Those who, like the author, came of age amid the turmoil of a decade marked by shattered trust, will find much to recognize about themselves and their lives in this emotionally honest work.
Robert Weibezahl has worked in the book publishing industry for 20 years as a writer and publicist. He lives in Los Angeles.