It's interesting that the back cover of July, July, Tim O'Brien's latest novel, compares the author to Don DeLillo. Perceptively, and quite unintentionally, the comparison highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of July, July, exposing a deeply flawed book that still manages to engage the reader. While DeLillo's novels are either tightly constructed studies of one or a few characters or sprawling works like Underworld, with dozens of characters over 800 pages, O'Brien seems to be trying to cram the latter into the pages of the former. Too many characters in too little lead time lead to a book that is disappointing, and yet worth reading.
The novel tells the story of a group of former students returning for their 30th anniversary at a small, fictional college in Minnesota. As one might expect, the characters are all wounded in some way-whether by rage, war, disease, or relationships, and these wounds are explored in context of the reunion and through periodic flashbacks. The characters are mostly quite interesting-the problem is that the novel, at a lean 300 pages, doesn't offer enough time to explore any of them in depth. As a result, the novel leaves strong impressions, but nothing more, about most of the characters, and I was left hoping for more information, and more resolution.
O'Brien also makes some poor choices about how he allocates his pages. Some characters are not terribly interesting, and we keep returning to them. Each time the novel returned to the two women sitting in their dorm room talking, I wanted to flip ahead, to the more interesting characters in conflict. Some of these vignettes are fascinating, with deep characters that you want to return to. Billy's struggle to overcome his unhappiness after the fleeing the country for Canada during the Vietnam War, for example, is particularly compelling, as is David's battle to regain his wife and deal with his demons from the war. When the story is focused on these characters, the writing is tight and engaging, and you get the strong impression that O'Brien is more interested in their stories as well.
Criticisms aside, July, July does offer the usual O'Brien strengths-tight storytelling about characters that are complex and yet credible. July, July might be worth reading for lines like Right now, for instance, she did not say, "Billy, I love you more than anything," because she did not love him more than anything. She loved cashmere." alone. Despite missteps in this work, O'Brien can still often say more in a passage than most authors can in a chapter.