A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

April/May 2002

ARTS OF WAR

BY MARC LEEPSON

SELLING BOOKS BY THE MILLION: Nelson Demille Does It Again 

Another novel, another blockbuster. That's been the theme of Nelson DeMille's professional life since the mid 1980s. There are an astounding 30 million copies of DeMille's novels in print worldwide. That includes his best-known novel, The General's Daughter (1993), which begot a big-budget Hollywood film with John Travolta in the leading role, and his first big-seller, Word of Honor (1985), the story of the early-1980s court-martial of a former Army lieutenant for events that took place in Vietnam in 1968. 

The 30 million does not include Nelson DeMille's latest novel, Up Country, which came out late in January and shot right up the bestseller lists. Up Country is a readable, fast-moving, clever DeMille thriller that centers on a Vietnam veteran--former Army CID man Paul Brenner, who first appeared in The General's Daughter--who goes to Vietnam in the late nineties to solve a murder that took place during the war.

We recently met with Nelson DeMille while he was in the Washington, D.C., area promoting his book. Our conversation centered on DeMille's service in the Vietnam War--he was a 1st Cav infantry LT in 1967-68--and about how a visit to VVA's national headquarters in 1994 led to the central idea of Up Country. That plot idea: what happens when a letter sent to VVA's Veterans Initiative Program is translated and reveals eyewitness testimony of the murder of an American Army officer by another American officer in country in 1968. 

DeMille, in fact, submitted a letter and some other information to the VI program shortly after his first visit to the national office. The translated letter was a love letter to an NVA soldier. “This first gave me the idea of a lovers' story, in which Brenner goes back to find the girl,” DeMille said. But, “somewhere along the line, I changed it to make it more dramatic.” It wasn't until DeMille finished writing Lion's Den, the novel he was working on at the time, and came home from a trip to Vietnam in 1997 with two other veterans that all the plot details for Up Country crystallized. 

“I got many ideas, many rich ideas,” in Vietnam, he said. The first idea, which did not survive, was “having three guys go back and come to grips with their war experiences. But the publisher didn't like that one. They said I needed a focus. So I added a love interest and changed it to a murder mystery.”  

Unraveling that mystery takes Brenner (and a lovely young American woman who lives in Saigon) on an odyssey through many of the places Brenner (and DeMille) experienced during their tours of duty: the A Shau Valley, Khe Sanh, Quang Tri, and elsewhere. The end result, DeMille said, is “three books in one: a murder mystery, a story of a guy who goes back to Vietnam sort of Brenner's third tour and the love story.”  

The film rights to Up Country have been sold to Paramount Pictures. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers is in production on DeMille's thriller The Gold Coast, the story of what happens to a big Wall Street lawyer and his wife when a godfather-type crime boss moves into their posh Long Island neighborhood. Al Pacino stars as the mafioso. “It's going to be a big Hollywood movie,” DeMille told us.


BIG BAD LOVE

In 1990, the Mississippi novelist Larry Brown, a former Vietnam War-era Marine, published Big Bad Love, a terrific collection of short stories. In them, Brown, whose debut novel, Dirty Work, deals brilliantly with two former Marines who were severely wounded in the war, burrowed into the unsettled lives of lower-middle-class Mississippi men in the throes of emotional upheaval. Brown leavened that upheaval with dry humor as he spun out tales involving broken relationships infused with an overabundance of beer drinking, cigarette smoking, and pickup truck driving. 

Brown's stories evidently had a big impact on Arliss Howard, the veteran actor who played Private Cowboy in Full Metal Jacket. Howard adapted Brown's stories into a Hollywood film, which he co-wrote (with James Howard), directed, and stars in. Howard plays Leon Barlow, a haunted soul plagued by marital, alcoholic, and professional demons.  

Howard's real-life wife, the actress Debra Winger, produced the film and also plays his distressed, much-put-upon ex-wife in her first film performance in seven years. Paul Le Mat, who played the town drag racer in American Graffiti, provides a modicum of comic relief as Barlow's underachieving and over-imbibing Vietnam veteran buddy. But the overall tone of the film is a discomfiting mixture of cleverness and self-destructiveness. Not much good happens to any of the film's characters, including the two messed-up Nam vets at its core.    


VIETNAM PASSAGES

David Lamb--the newspaper correspondent--covered the war in Vietnam in 1968 and 1977. He returned in 1997 and spent four years reporting on Vietnam the country for The Los Angeles Times. Vietnam Passage: Journeys from War to Peace, a documentary produced by Sandy Northrop that will be shown on PBS television stations May 23, is Lamb's look at the war, the Vietnamese people, and postwar Vietnam filtered through the stories of six Vietnamese men and women whose lives were shaped by the war and by the death of South Vietnam in 1975. 

Several of the stories are remarkable and compelling. That includes what happened to Binh   Nguyen, who escaped Vietnam before the fall, made a good life in the United States, and returned to his native land to run the country's Federal Express business. 

Northrop is an accomplished documentary film maker who is married to Lamb and who produced the 1999 film Pete Peterson: Assignment Hanoi--is an accomplished film maker. She provides an excellent balance of first-person testimony and narration (by Lamb), combined with illuminating, present-day footage and evocative old photos and news film from the war. 

On the other hand, the documentary offers little information that is not very well known about the American war, about the Vietnamese people, and about Vietnam today--at least to those with a rudimentary knowledge of the war and those who have followed what has happened in Vietnam since 1975.

   


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