In November 1968, John extends his tour in Vietnam for an extra year. He does this because he feels he has no choice—his experiences at Thuan Yen make him lose touch with himself. He writes to Kathy that he can’t explain his decision other than to say that it’s personal. Kathy responds that she loves him, and hopes his decision isn’t a career move.
It comes as a shock that John would extend his tour, especially after we’ve read about the horrors of My Lai. Perhaps this is a sign that John is beginning to enjoy the atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty in Vietnam. Many soldiers who suffer from PTSD have had similar reactions to combat.
After he extends his tour, John tries hard to forget what he’s seen in Vietnam. He is promoted twice, but in December and January sustains injuries in battle: shrapnel and a flesh wound. John feels that he needs the pain because it helps him reclaim virtuousness. At times he can almost forget about Thuan Yen.
John copes with his actions (still unknown to us) in a few ways. He hurts himself, as if to do “penance” for his sins. He also tries to repress his memories of the affair. This is a highly unhealthy way to deal with trauma—when repressed, trauma never goes away; it merely reappears at the most unlikely time.
In November of 1969, John returns to the United States, having won many medals. He marries Kathy five months later, and Kathy says that she knows they’ll be happy. He goes to law school and goes on to pass the bar in 1973. For the next three years he works as an assistant legislative counsel for the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party, a dull, low-paying position that nonetheless helps him forget about the war. For their five-year anniversary, John does magic for Katy and makes five roses appear. Kathy observes that he seems more content and peaceful than he had before.
At first, Johns’ attempts at repression seem completely successful—he leads a normal life, and returns to loving Kathy and pursuing a political career. Nevertheless, this doesn’t prove anything—clearly, he still remembers what he did at My Lai, even if he pretends not to—at some point, his memories will come back to haunt him. In the meantime, though, John continues to use magic to disguise his inner anxiety.
In 1976, John announces that he is running for the Minnesota State Senate. He asks Tony Carbo, an overweight, experienced campaign manager, to help him. John assures Tony that he wants to win, “in his guts.” Tony asks John how he wants to run; John replies that he wants to focus on the issues, but Tony assures him that it’s impossible to win by focusing on the issues. Tony says that he’ll help John, because he’s handsome, a war hero, and has a beautiful wife. Tony asks John to imagine a scenario. In the scenario Tony describes, John meets a beautiful woman at a party. John wines and dines her, and tells her about his life and his beliefs. The beautiful woman starts to sense that she “owes” John her love and attention, even though neither of them has ever discussed the idea of the woman owing John anything. As he explains all this, Tony looks at Kathy, but mutters that it’s only a metaphor.
Tony seems to understand John in a way that few others do. While Kathy in some ways believes John’s image of capability and trustworthiness, Tony sees it as a mere “image.” Tony also shows himself to be attracted to Kathy—his long, rambling metaphor about a beautiful woman, delivered as he stares directly at Kathy, is obviously based on his crush, even if he denies this. Perhaps there’s more to the metaphor, though—Tony sees the relationship between a politician and his constituents as almost romantic—John has already shown that he sees politics in exactly these terms as well.
John is in the state senate for six years. Tony runs his campaigns, which are expensive, slick, and successful. John acquires a reputation for being a good politician and organizer. John has a boyish charm that makes people and the press like him, and he instinctively knows how to cooperate and compromise with others. He sincerely believes that he is doing good. At the same time, he listens to Tony’s advice about keeping up appearances: he wears expensive suits, keeps fit, and makes friends with people who could be helpful to him in the future. Secretly, he still enjoys manipulation and deception, though he projects an image of modesty and sincerity.
John believes that he’s doing genuine good for other people, but it seems that he’s focusing less and less on the issues and more on deception and manipulation for their own sake. We see once again the influence of John’s father on John’s career—even as an adult, John keeps fit, as if he’s still afraid of being insulted by his father. John is turn between a desire to help others and a desire to manipulate others—perhaps these two desires are one and the same for him.
Because John is a state senator, his life with Kathy is sometimes difficult. They are happy, but only because they’re thinking of the future—in the present, they don’t go on vacations or have children. John and Kathy learn to be frugal and clever with their spending, since they have to fund their campaigns. They rarely make love, a fact that bothers Kathy and makes her suspicious. She asks John if she’s keeping secrets from him, and John replies that he isn’t. He’s secretly afraid of losing her, and always has been.
Kathy begins to suspect that John isn’t being faithful to her. John’s insistence that he isn’t keeping any secrets from her can be taken any number of ways—we know by now that he is keeping secrets (his experiences in Vietnam, the fact that he follows Kathy, or followed her, etc.)—therefore, it’s possible that he’s keeping secrets about adultery from her.
Several times, Tony asks John if he’s “clean,” and John responds that he is. Tony also asks about religion; John says that he’s not sure, and Tony recommends that John become a Lutheran and start going to church every week. Shortly thereafter, John wins a big victory and becomes the lieutenant governor of Minnesota. He’s confident that he’s on his way to becoming a senator.
John proves himself to be a ruthless, cynical politician, willing to take up a new religion wholly for the sake of getting elected. It’s even more disturbing that these cheap attempts to grab votes end up working—John wins in a landslide.
In July 1982, shortly after John becomes lieutanent governor, Kathy tells John that she is pregnant. John and Kathy have many conversations about this, and John stresses that they have plenty of time before they need to have children. John made a phone call, the narrator says, and forms were signed. He stands in a clinic, looking at himself in the mirror and trying to think of a way to explain himself to Kathy—he fails to do so.
Here, John shows that he’s indifferent to Kathy’s happiness if it conflicts with his career. He urges Kathy to have an abortion, even though she seems to want a child, because he’s afraid a child would limit his political career. As John’s manipulation and deception of Kathy becomes more extreme, he finds it increasingly difficult to talk to her—thus, when he rehearses a speech to give to her, he can’t find the words.
A short time later, John casually tells Kathy that they have done the right thing. Kathy insists that all she wanted was a baby. Afterwards, they watch TV, and never talk about the incident again. While John and Kathy know that they shouldn’t be burdened with a child at this point in their lives and that they are not ashamed of their decision, they sense, deep down, that they have sacrificed a huge thing in return for the future.
It’s clear that Kathy didn’t want to have an abortion. It’s also clear, then, that she loves and respects or at least obeys her husband, if she was willing to give up something she loved for his sake. O’Brien skillfully transitions form descriptions of what “Kathy” wants to descriptions of what “they” want. Evidently, John is speaking on behalf of both himself and Kathy instead of giving her an equal vote in what the family will do.
On January 19, 1986, John announces his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Polls put him well ahead of his nearest rival, an old-time politician named Ed Durkee. Tony is confident that they’ll win the election easily. In his speeches, John avoids talking about the issues—instead he talks about “fresh air and fresh starts.”
By now, it’s obvious that John has taken Tony’s advice, and only talked about puffy slogans, not issues. As in magic, as a politician he focuses on the surface of thing, of creating an image that fools others.
After John announces his candidacy, he, Kathy, and Tony have dinner. Kathy mentions that John’s campaign seems a little “empty.” When she asks Tony what John’s message should be, he replies, “Win.” Kathy suggests that Tony isn’t as cynical as he seems—deep down, he’s a dreamer, just like John. Tony eats food off of Kathy’s plate, and says that it’s mind-boggling that she married John. He says that Kathy is “spectacular,” and Kathy tells him that he doesn’t say so nearly enough. John, who is sitting at the table as Kathy and Tony have this conversation, continues to smile—Kathy’s hand is on his knee.
Kathy, not John, is still focused on the issues. John has deluded himself into believing that at a later date, he can begin to focus on the issues—Kathy doesn’t buy this at all. It’s unclear how we’re supposed to interpret the scene that follows. Clearly, Tony is attracted to Kathy, and appears to be flirting with her. Why, then, doesn’t John say anything? He seems to feel comfortable with his “ownership” of Kathy, as evidenced by her hand on his knee. Or perhaps he’s more concerned with winning the campaign than with keeping his wife’s love.
Tony asks John what issues he’d like to talk about, and John admits that it’s probably better to focus on the election and then turn to the issues. Kathy objects, saying that John will never get to the issues, since there will always be another election for him. Tony, who is drinking bourbon with his meal, notes the paradox of politics: politicians who care about the “issues” are always hated. The most successful politicians are those who can appeal to foolish, uninformed voters. As he explains this, he starts to get angry, and says he doesn’t think John is interested in the issues, anyway. Kathy goes to the bathroom, leaving John and Tony to talk.
Tony, for all his apparent cynicism, is perceptive about the nature of American politics. It’s as if constituents want to be fooled—they actively resist any attempts on the part of politicians to enact real change, preferring glitzy surfaces and the mere appearance of charisma. This is also how the novel has described magic. Tony also proves that he’s more insightful about John than Kathy is: Kathy still thinks that John might want to discuss issues, when Tony sees the truth—John is indifferent to issues altogether.
While Kathy is in the bathroom, Tony tells John she’s a “yummy specimen,” and points out that Kathy thinks John is “Mr. Clean.” When John objects that he is Mr. Clean, Tony says that John doesn’t fool him: John avoids talking about certain issues. When John asks what issues these might be, Tony refuses to name them, but only says, “bang-bang.” John says that Tony is reaching, and Tony admits that he might be. As Kathy returns from the bathroom, Tony says that he’d gladly lose 50 pounds for “a shot” at her.
Tony continues to prove how insightful he is about John. The “bang bang” he refers to could mean either John’s experiences in Vietnam, or his possible adultery, or both. Once again, the fact that these issues aren’t explained makes them seem more sinister and mysterious to us. Tony’s comment about losing weight for Kathy seems to suggest his belief that appearance is what counts in love as well as in politics. But the thing about weight is that it’s not so easy to lose, so the idea of weight comes to symbolize the intersection of appearance and reality because it is something you can control but not entirely, it is subject to a person’s will but also influenced by the parts of themselves that people can’t control.