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NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2007

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REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON
It has been written by your book editor, among others, that the literary novel about the Vietnam War would be by a 21st century Stephen Crane. It would be published decades after the conflict ended (Crane’s seminal Civil War novel Red Badge of Courage came out in 1895) by someone who hadn’t taken part in it (Crane was born in 1871).

There has been one strong nominee for this honor: Stewart O’Nan’s masterful The Names of the Dead, which was published in 1996 and evokes the grunt’s life.
As good as O’Nan’s book is, though, it pales in comparison with the astonishing new novel, Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 624 pp., $27) by Denis Johnson, who was born in 1949 and until now has been best known for his 1992 short story collection, Jesus’ Son. The tightly written Tree of Smoke spans the period from 1964 to the early 1980s. In it, Johnson deftly intertwines the war (and non-war) stories of a coterie of CIA types, a group of American grunts, and several Vietnamese. The novel came with a boatload of pre-publication publicity, all positive; it won the National Book Award for fiction; and it dented The New York Times bestseller list.

The book takes its title more or less from the mad plan drawn up by the central player, a man we know as “the Colonel,” a Captain-Kurtz-like character who has spent too many years undercover in Southeast Asia. The main story line follows the careening adventures of the heavy-drinking, philosophy-spouting Colonel, who appears to be losing his grip on reality as he runs his own psyops operation with
the unwilling help of a unit of American infantrymen. Added to the mix is the Colonel’s nephew, Skip Sands. He is a young, sort-of idealistic undercover op, who is sort of the Alden Pyle (the well-intentioned but fatally naïve anti-hero
of Graham Greene’s classic The Quiet American) of the piece. Sands spends several years in country more or less working under the Colonel.

In the shadowy world that Johnson creates, nothing is clear. That goes for the other main story, which follows the ne’er-do-well Houston brothers, one of whom, James, winds up in the thick of it in Vietnam. These boys were screwed up before they went into the military, proceed to mess up big time while in the military, and then become psychic and physical accidents waiting to happen after they come home.
In James Houston, Johnson flirts with creating yet another clichéd, combat-crazed Vietnam veteran, but instead makes this difficult person into a fully realized individual, as he does with all the other characters in the book, including the other Houston boy, whose life is believable, if sad and often revolting.

Johnson does not shy away from the brutal reality of life in the war zone. Here’s one passage that drew my attention, a meditation on “American soldiers” through the eyes of a world-weary Canadian woman doing humanitarian work in Vietnam: “They threw hand grenades through doorways and blew the arms and legs off ignorant farmers, they rescued puppies from starvation and smuggled them home to Mississippi in their shirts, they burned down whole villages and raped young girls, they stole medicines by the jeep-load to save the lives of orphans.” Yes, this is partly bombast and hyperbole, but you have to admit that this passage bores in on the yin and the yang of the life of a young American fighting in the Vietnam War.

In short (this book is not—it’s a long book, but a very readable one), Denis Johnson has created the real deal here: A Vietnam War novel that brings alive the war at its cauldron-bubbling worst, a novel filled with memorable characters and well-wrought set pieces in Vietnam and at home. This is a novel that will stay with you and remind you of the consequences of war for those who take part in it and for those who happen to be living where war is.

FICTION IN BRIEF
John Burdett introduced Sonchai Jitpleecheep, his half-American Royal Thai police detective, in the entertaining and enlightening Bangkok Tattoo in 2003, brought him back in 2005’s meaty Bangkok 8, and gives him life again, amid a cast of over-the-top characters and a wild plot, in another excellent detective/thriller, Bangkok Haunts (Knopf, 305 pp., $24.95). Like its predecessors, the new book hones in on our hero, a Buddhist Bangkok cop whose father was an American GI on R&R during the Vietnam War and whose mother was a prostitute who becomes the madam of a bawdy house that he helps run. Once again, Sonchai solves a convoluted murder while doling out lessons in Thai Buddhist culture and social mores, along with a strong infusion of religious and other spiritual beliefs.

The 3 CD-set recording, Selected Shorts: Wartime Lives (SymphonySpace, $28), contains oral presentations of six works, two of which are top-drawer pieces dealing with the Vietnam War: an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s masterful The Things They Carried (read by Dylan Baker) and War Wounds, a portion of Tom Bissell’s memoir, The Father of All Things (read by Oskar Eustis), along with “Mother in the Trenches” (read by Kathleen Chalfant), a new Robert Olen Butler short story set in the trenches in World War I. The stories first were aired on the NPR series Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story.

The pseudonymous Dean O’Shea’s Yard Bull (On the Mark, 350 pp., $24.95) is a well-done autobiographical novel told in the first person by a railroad detective just back from the Vietnam War. For more info, go to www.theyardbull.com

Bill Pezza’s fast-paced Anna’s Boys (Author House, 457 pp., $24.95, paper) follows the fortunes over the years of a group of working class Baby Boomer guys in Bristol, Pa., who get enmeshed in the Vietnam War.

VVA member James Isaiah Gabbe’s ambitious and cleverly plotted LaRue’s Maneuvers (BookSurge, 398 pp., $17.99, paper) centers on a memoir-within-a-novel written by a Vietnam veteran who is haunted by his past, especially what happened to him in the war.

The tenth anniversary edition of Ken Kirkeby’s engagingly written The Tournament (Black River Books, 192 pp., $11.95, paper) has just been published. The story is set in 1978 in the Bahamas and involves a Vietnam veteran and his adventures in the world of sport fishing and much more.

Former Marine Elliott Storm’s These Scars Are Sacred (BookSurge, 207 pp., $24.95 paper) tells the war and postwar stories of a Marine who has a rough time on both fronts.

Charles Sheehan-Miles’s second novel, Republic (Cincinnatus Press, 332 pp., $16.95, paper), is a dialogue-rich tale centered on an Iraq War veteran fighting on three fronts in the near future. Sheehan-Miles served in the first Persian Gulf War.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF
Ronald Spector, the long-time George Washington University history professor and Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, has written three excellent books of history, including the acclaimed After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam. His latest, In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia (Random House, 358 pp., $27.95), is an incisive, informing look at what happened in Asia following World War II. It contains two meaty chapters on the mess the French and Japanese left in Indochina.

And what a mess it was, a roiling stew that included French nationalists, Vichy French, the defeated Japanese, British troops in the South, Nationalist Chinese troops in the North, Vietnamese nationalists north and south, Vietminh revolutionaries in the north, a Vietnamese criminal syndicate, Vietnamese religious cults, and the American OSS in the background. It was a scene of “mutual suspicions, geopolitical imaginings, personality clashes, prejudices, and ignorance among the victorious Allies,” as Spector perceptively puts it. And he shows how it led to France reclaiming its Indochinese colony and the Vietminh, under Ho Chi Minh, starting what would be a nine-year war for independence.

Allen Clark’s Wounded Soldier, Healing Warrior (Zenith, 320 pp., $24.95) is a moving memoir that focuses on what happened to Clark, a West Point grad and Army Special Forces Captain, after he lost both legs in a mortar attack near Dak To on June 17, 1967. Clark went though a long process of physical recovery and emotional torment that he overcame in large part through strong religious faith. His well-written memoir has all the details of this uplifting story, including Clark’s high-level work at the VA in the 1980s and ’90s. For more info, go to www.woundedsoldierhealingwarrior.com

Don W. Griffs served a 1968-69 tour of duty in Vietnam as a Marine lawyer with the legal office of Force Logistics Command near Danang. At the same time, he commanded a Provisional Rifle Company whose duties included patrolling, setting up ambushes, and conducting offensive operations. Griffs, who was 25 when he went to Vietnam, kept a journal. He has put that long-ago work to good use as the basis of his readable, insightful war memoir, Eagle Days: A Marine Legal/Infantry Officer in Vietnam (University of Alabama Press, 174 pp., $29.95).

The current edition of The U.S. Air Force Academy’s excellent literary journal, WLA: War, Literature & the Arts, is a 2006 special double issue that contains several Vietnam War-related pieces. That includes illuminating tributes to the late Gloria Emerson by three of the top writers whose work has been strongly influenced by the Vietnam War: John Balaban, Wayne Karlin, and W.D. Ehrhart.

The prolific Gordon Rottman, who served with the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam in 1969-70, today specializes in writing nuts-and-bolts military history. He is the author of three recently published high-quality, heavily illustrated paperbacks put out by Osprey, the British military history specialty publisher: Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam, 1966-70 (96 pp., $23.95); Vietnam Airmobile Warfare Tactics (64 pp., $17.95), with illustrations by Adam Hook; and Viet Cong Fighter (64 pp., $17.95), illustrated by Howard Gerrard.

Also in the well-illustrated, military hardware-heavy vein: Retired U.S. Navy officer Peter Mersky’s U.S. and Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk Units of the Vietnam War, 1963-1973 (Osprey, 112 pp., paper, $21.95); the revised and updated The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the 21st Century (St. Martin’s, 368 pp., $24.95, paper), which contains a brief section on the Vietnam War, put together by The Diagram Group; and Chris McNab and Martin J. Dougherty’s Combat Techniques: An Elite Forces Guide to Modern Infantry Tactics (St. Martin’s, 191 pp., $24.95), which makes repeated references to the American War in Vietnam.

The heart of William Schroder and Ronald Dawe’s Soldier’s Heart: Close-up Today with PTSD in Vietnam Veterans (Praeger Security International, 187 pp., $49.95) consists of five long chapters, each of which is devoted to the first-person story of a Vietnam veteran with PTSD. Schroder and Dawe served as helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War.

Kim Long’s sprightly written, encyclopedic The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals & Dirty Politics (Delacorte, 240 pp., $24) contains one prime entry dealing with the Vietnam War—the unauthorized publication of The Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the war, and how that led to what Long calls “the mother of all political corruption events,” the Watergate scandal.

New in paper: Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War (Back Bay/Little, Brown, 393 pp., $14.99), Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss’s book-length version of their Pulitzer-Prize winning newspaper series on the out-of-control actions of a group of 101st Airborne soldiers in Vietnam, and Douglass H. Hubbard, Jr.’s Special Agent, Vietnam: A Naval Intelligence Memoir (Potomac Books, 268 pp., $17.95).

Also new in paper are three worthy titles from the Naval Institute Press: The Battle of Ap Bac, Vietnam: They Did Everything But Learn From It (224 pp., $19.95), David M. Toczek’s examination of the pivotal January 1963 ARVN-VC conflict; The War Managers: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (232 pp., $19.95), Douglas Kinnard’s incisive analysis of what went wrong in Vietnam told primarily from his fellow generals’ point of view; and Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973 (736 pp., $34.95), Stuart I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley’s comprehensive look at the experiences of American Vietnam War POWs.

VVA member Hank Miller, a photographer and teacher who served as a Navy Attack Aviator aboard the Oriskany in 1966-68, has just produced a 26-page pamphlet, Digital Photography for Travelers. For ordering info, go to www.lulu.com/hank-miller

 

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