“Everything sparkled.”

That line from Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried would be sentimental and sugary in most contexts.

But in this masterful short story collection, it’s all we need to know about how, when the writer was drafted into the Vietnam War at a young age, he suddenly perceived his home. We get plenty of details: “The old chrome toaster, the telephone, the pink and white Formica on the kitchen counters. The room was full of bright sunshine.” But we know he means that he saw “everything” — far more than a bunch of appliances — with new appreciation in view of the hard news of his pending deployment.

O’Brien is a master of lines that draw us into states of mind, that stay with us, that continue to work on us. His work will reward the attention of any writer, like myself, who wants to learn from a master. It’s a perfect Veterans Day text: a fusion of memoir and fiction that was a finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

things they carriedI could write an essay on O’Brien’s long sentences, which are often rhythmic and melodic (and sometimes meaningfully repetitive), embodying moods and perspectives that burden soldiers’ experience — sensory impressions that come from living in an adrenalin rush; the surreality of the world to the war-trained eye; the vertiginous effects of trauma — before, during, and after a war. But it’s the short sentences that stun me, that ring out at times like gunshots. As ordinary as they seem at first, I’ve come to believe that he is as careful about those as he is about the lines that apply pressure to them. He gives them a poet’s attention. They stick with me like a burr or a thorn. Sometimes, they’re explosive.

He’s well-aware of the power of sentence fragments. I won’t forget his description of a friend falling under sudden fire: “Boom. Down. Nothing else” (6). Regarding the turmoil he felt upon getting drafted, he says, “The emotions went from outrage to terror to bewilderment to guilt to sorrow and then back again to outrage. I felt a sickness inside of me. Real disease.” Those two words stick with me after that paragraph: “Real disease.”

Later, hiding at the home of a benevolent stranger just a short dash from the Canadian border, trying (but failing) to keep his plans to flee the draft secret, he spends a lot of words describing his enigmatic host. Then he says this: “The man was sharp — he didn’t miss much. Those razor eyes” (47). Those eyes stay with me. By not finishing the sentence, he makes us pause and imagine why those eyes impressed him, and to then complete that sentence our own way. The fragment implies its own question: Those eyes… what?

But it’s the short, complete sentences that work the most magic on me.

Testifying that war’s horrors teach soldiers to strike poses of irreverent callousness toward life (otherwise, how would they persevere?), he gives us this:

They were actors. When someone died, it wasn’t quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself. They kicked corpses. (19).

The first short sentence is bold and intriguing. What follows is explanatory and insightful. But my takeaway from the paragraph is the concrete detail of the three-word sentence that follows. “They kicked corpses.” That I will remember. In the context, the implications of it are clear and even reasonable. But they still shock.

Recounting how his company would “play long, silent games” of checkers, he uses four short sentences that stand in stark contrast to the context in which the games were played: “You knew where you stood. You knew the score. … There was a winner and a loser. There were rules” (31).

After ugly flashback specifics of a summer job in which he hosed out the blood out of pig carcasses and then went home “smelling of pig,” he says — seemingly unnecessarily — “It wouldn’t go away” (41). He’ll go on to describe, in detail, just how deeply the stink of death had sunk into his skin and hair. But “It wouldn’t go away” resonates ominously: an echo bouncing back from all that is to come — what we already know will be a story of indelible war wounds. It wouldn’t go away: the reality of being drafted; the hardships of being a soldier; the terror and shame and damage of having witnessed war, having waged war, having survived.

Describing how he kept himself busy on the Canadian border, trying muster the strength to cross over and flee the draft, he writes,

On two or three afternoons, to pass some time, I helped Elroy get the place ready for winter, sweeping down the cabins and hauling in the boats, little chores that kept my body moving. The days were cool and bright. The nights were very dark. (48)

My mind seizes upon “The nights were very dark,” and connects it to the “silence” in the middle of the following sentence. There is a leak in this busy, well-lit picture, and it’s that bottomless pit of the dark night.

And the moment upon which that whole story turns? He writes,

The money lay on the table for the rest of the evening. It was still there when I went back to my cabin. In the morning, though, I found an envelope tacked to my door. Inside were the four fifties and a two-word note that said EMERGENCY FUND. (51)

We know what this means. But before it fully sinks in, he gives he next three words their own chilling line: “The man knew.”

Short sentences emphasize how close he came to absconding — their brevity reinforces how easily he could have stepped over. “I could’ve done it,” he says (54). He gives us a one-sentence paragraph: “I tried to will myself overboard” (56). Then, another: “I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, Now” (56). By breaking these into their own paragraphs, introducing more gaps and pauses, he slows the reader down, and he amplifies these tense moments of almost-ness, of indecision, of fate in the balance. Then, a two-sentence paragraph: “I did try. It just wasn’t possible” (57). By saying “I did try,” he sounds as if he feels compelled to confess his sins.

In “Enemies,” when one soldier beats up another, we have this descriptive sentence: “For a while it went back and forth, but Dave Jensen was much bigger and much stronger, and eventually he wrapped an arm around Strunk’s neck and pinned him down and kept hitting him on the nose.” Then he adds, “He hit him hard.” The reader has probably already guessed that. But stating the obvious only forces us to know what we might want to minimize. And then, even though he has noted that Jensen “kept hitting him,” he adds another short sentence: “And he didn’t stop.” That gets a capital and a period to make us feel how the fact made a strong impression. He’s repeating this fact about the hits because Jensen kept repeating the hits.

In the longest chapter of the book — “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” — O’Brien crystallizes a horror story’s revelation with this: “Vietnam made her glow in the dark” (109). Then he does it again: “She was lost inside herself” (110).

This makes me want to go back to my novels — and my essays-in-progress — and to apply pressure to every sentence. To strive for diamonds. When I think of these soldiers, and all of the things they carried, detailed in long passages of inventory, I will remember this, and all that it implies — the hope and the heaviness — “They carried the sky” (14).

Page numbers reference the 20th anniversary hardcover edition of The Things They Carried, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.