Those familiar with the work of Tim O'Brien know the Vietnam War is central theme in his novels. But the war here has more of a ghostly, ephemeral presence. The main character, John Wade, has lost a primary bid for the U.S. Senate and retreats to the woods of Northern Minnesota to heal from his defeat. At the cabin, his life begins to unravel as his world external and internal world unravels. Readers will likely see John Wade as a distant character who we never get to know, nor do those closest to him. O'Brien shows episodes in his life throughout the novel, never quite revealing the whole picture. Without revealing too much we learn John Wade took part in one of the most horrific incidents during America's war with Vietnam. He marries his college girlfriend in a relationship that is seemingly normal, but also filled with darkness. As a politician Wade is on the cusp of gaining a seat in the Senate until an unspecified scandal derails his campaign.
Like every Tim O'Brien novel the prose is sharp. But some readers may be frustrated by the lack of resolution. Instead O'Brien provides hints and possible explanations for Wade's actions. He seems harmless and deadly at the same time. The characterizations are my major issue with the novel. John's political adviser is an annoying caricature of those strange behind the scene figures. Kathy Wade is a sad character drifting unhappily through her life as a political wife. Unlike his other literature on Vietnam like Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, In the Lake less concerned with the reality of the war, and more with the unreality of it. How did America get involved in Vietnam? Does it matter? Like any event in history, historians will invent narratives and causes for the war in long winded tomes, but behind all the rhetoric lies mystery, awful truths, and finally unresolved grief among the living and dead. Yes, In the Lake of the Woods is a solemn novel because it suggests ideas instead of propagating them.