The Truth in Tracy Kidder’s Fiction

Yesterday the Book Bench linked to an interview with Tracy Kidder at the Bygone Bureau, where he discusses his history as a nonfiction author and some of his early writerly regrets. (He’s bought back the rights to his first book, The Road to Yuba City, in the hopes you’ll never read it.) He also mentions his early attempts to write fiction:

I wrote a novel that was really bad. It wasn’t published, thank god. Although I did use it in a small book that I wrote called My Detachment. It was a novel about Vietnam. It was all about experiences I didn’t have in Vietnam. It was mostly a… that’s the closest thing I had to a journal of my time as a soldier, and so it’s mostly of psychological interest. I published, I think, three short stories over the years. But I haven’t been writing fiction for quite some time. Although I’d like to write fiction again, I don’t have any fiction I’d like to write at the moment.

I’m happy for any excuse to mention My Detachment, which I like to think of as the last honest memoir: A book that is not only up-front about how humdrum the author’s experience was, but which attempts to get at why writers inflate stories about themselves. The impetus for the book was Kidder receiving a copy of that unpublished war novel, “Ivory Fields,” in the mail from a friend. Kidder had burned his manuscript, and on the evidence he provides, he wasn’t torching a future classic. (“About this time is when the sad story begins. It is the saddest story you ever hope to hear.”) But writing the book spoke to an instinct common among soldiers:

Most of the American soldiers who went to Vietnam were boys, whether they were twenty-two or just eighteen. They had watched a lot of movies and TV. I’m sure that many set out for Vietnam feeling confused or unhappy, as adolescents tend to do, and deep down many probably thought they would return with improved reasons for feeling that way. But of the roughly three million Americans who went to the war dressed as soldiers, only a small minority returned with Combat Infantryman’s Badges, certain proof of a terrible experience. Imagine all the bullshit stories Vietnam inspired.

My Detachment is largely a study of Kidder’s own capacity for bullshit, in the failed novel, in conversations, and especially in his letters back home. (“I shot a man through the head and little pieces of his brain and a great quantity of blood colored my gun and my clothes and face,” he lies in a letter to his girlfriend back home.) Kidder admits to an almost comic narcissism: After arriving in Berkeley once his stint is over, he’s disappointed that he isn’t met with the stereotypical protests and jeers. “Maybe if we’d stopped and walked around that campus in our uniforms, we’d have found someone to spit on us,” he writes. Throughout My Detachment, is hard on himself, but not so hard that he lapses into the very self-pity he’s criticizing in his youthful self. It’s essential reading for anybody who thinks their lives merit an entire book.

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