The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August/September 2003
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

VILLA INCOGNITO & BANGKOK 8:
NOVELS SET IN SE ASIA WITH TWISTS
BY MARC LEEPSON



The main plot of hipster novelist Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito (Bantam, 241 pp., $24.95) involves four USAF fly boys shot down in their B-52 over Laos who decide to go native, stay in the jungle, and not be repatriated. Since this is Tom (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Another Roadside Attraction) Robbins, one of the main characters is a badger-like creature who has the power to metamorphose into a human being - a human being with a huge appetite for booze and sex.

Robbins concocts a strange tale peppered with sometimes funny epigrammatic bon mots, raunchy sexual escapades, and good-hearted, heroic, off-beat characters fighting against the establishment. The meandering story, though, bogs down too often amid too much clumsy exposition and too many surreal moments, and is a less-than-satisfying attraction.

John Burdett's meaty Bangkok 8 (Knopf, 318 pp., $24), on the other hand, is a cleverly plotted detective thriller containing a well-drawn, completely believable main character, a half-Thai, half-American Bangkok cop who solves a convoluted murder while he doles out lessons in Thai Buddhist culture and social mores.

Our hero, the son of an unidentified American GI on R&R from the Vietnam War and a Thai prostitute, does a smashing job with both tasks. He painstakingly unravels a strange mystery and entertainingly enlightens the western reader about a very different culture and society. There's a Vietnam War connection, too, dealing with the not-so-secret war in Laos. Saying any more about that, though, would give away too much of Burdett's intriguing, twisting plot.

FICTION IN BRIEF

The hero of Joel Rosenberg's Home Front (Forge, 300 pp., $23.95) is a cynical Vietnam veteran scratching out a boring living as a grumpy bachelor copy editor in a small town in North Dakota. Things heat up in the middle of a frozen Great Plains winter when the daughter of one of his Nam buddies, an African-American teenager from the big city (Minneapolis), reports that her father has been killed and her life is in danger. Two other war buddies come into the picture as our dyspeptic hero sets out to make things right for the young woman in this readable almost thriller.

The Vietnam War looms menacingly over the plot of The Patience of Rivers (Norton, 351 pp., $24.95), which takes place in the summer of 1969 and centers on a high school graduate's rites of passage in the girlfriend and family arenas. This well-constructed novel is set in upstate New York near Woodstock before, during, and after the famed rock festival. It features realistic letters home from Vietnam by the main character's good buddy.

Amy Heller's Willem's Field (Free Press, 400 pp., $24) is set in rural Mississippi in the seventies. It's the story of the 70-year-old title character going home to his roots. One of the supporting characters is Bruno, a physically and psychologically damaged Vietnam veteran. Heller, an accomplished novelist, portrays this man realistically and gives him something heroic to do.

Sid Gustafson's taut first novel, Prisoners of Flight (Permanent, 176 pp., $18, paper), deals with two USAF Academy Vietnam veterans and their wilderness adventure in Glacier National Park in Montana. They are stranded there with two young women, and all four are forced to deal with their emotional problems during the long, hard winter. Gustafson is a Montana veterinarian.

Cameron Michaels' Dust of Life (Bellweather, 340 pp., $14, paper) is a fast-moving, well-told story that begins in Vietnam during the war and runs through three additional decades. At its heart are an Army officer and the Amerasian Vietnamese girl he brings home from the war to Tennessee. Michaels, who appears to be 30-something, evokes wartime Vietnam quite well.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

The Atlas of American Military History (Oxford University Press, 248 pp., $50), edited by James C. Bradford, contains concise, well-written, objective summaries, accompanied by excellent maps and other graphics, of America's wars from the colonial period to the post-Cold War era. The chapter on the Vietnam War, by independent scholar James Warren, is an excellent capsule history of the war. It deals with the war's political issues, while focusing on battles and operations, including Operation Starlite, Rolling Thunder, the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, Dak To, the Tet Offensive, Khe Sanh, the Cambodian Incursion, and Operations Lom Son and Linebackers I and II.

Healing Richard Nixon: A Doctor's Memoir (University Press of Kentucky, 248 pp., $27.50) is an unabashed defense of the former President written by the late John C. Lungren, a close Nixon friend who was his personal physician, and John C. Lungren, Jr. The Lungrens staunchly defend the only U.S. president to resign his office. That includes his prosecution of the Vietnam War. The authors agree with Nixon's contention that the war ended less than honorably through no fault of his own, but due in large part to the all-but-subversive efforts of the American news media and the antiwar movement.

Former Nixon staffers by the score and many other Nixon watchers have their say in the newly revised edition of The Nixon Presidency: An Oral History of an Era (Brassey's, 587 pp., $27, paper) put together by Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober. The who's who of one-time Nixon intimates who speak out here on the Vietnam War and other subjects includes Charles Colson, John Dean, John Ehrlichman, Gerald Ford, H.R. Haldeman, Jeb Magruder, and George Shultz.

The Strobers' newly revised edition of The Kennedy Presidency: An Oral History of the Era (Brassey's, 554 pp., $27, paper) contains a good deal more on Vietnam War policy-making, including sections on the Diem coup, Henry Cabot Lodge's appointment as ambassador to South Vietnam, and counterinsurgency. Among the testifiers: antiwar activist William Sloan Coffin, Jr., former South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States Bui Diem, William Colby, George McGovern, Marine Corps Gen. Victor Krulak, John Kenneth Galbraith, Dean Rusk, and George Ball.

Walt Whitman Rostow, the trusted Kennedy and Johnson top-level adviser who died in February, was an unrepentant Vietnam War hawk till the end. The chapter on the war in his last book, Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market (University of Texas, 484 pp., $60) bears that out. Rostow offers up what he calls ``a brief analysis of the [war's] central issues." He concludes that the United States was "not involved in a pointless war.'' Quoting Gen. William Westmoreland, Rostow says that American participation in the war allowed ``a free Asia [to] survive and grow,'' and this tipped ``the balance of power'' in Asia in our favor.

In Diem's Final Failure: Prelude to America's War in Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 312 pp., $34.95) historian Philip E. Catton presents a revised ``image'' of South Vietnamese Premiere Ngo Dinh Diem. He was not ``the backward-looking mandarin who appears in the pages of most Western accounts of the war,'' Catton says; rather, Diem was a devoted anticommunist and nation builder who was ``probably no worse than'' other leaders in Southeast Asia in terms of his totalitarian tendencies. In doing so, Catton minimizes Diem's and his brother Nhu's ``political failings,'' which included rampant corruption and ruthless repression of political dissent.

MEMOIRS IN BRIEF

Ed Emanuel's Soul Patrol (Ballantine, 285 pp., $6.99, paper) is a well-told memoir of the author's 1968-69 Vietnam tour with Team 2/6 of Company F of the 51st Infantry, an elite LRRP Airborne unit that was reactivated for the Vietnam War. Emanuel was part of a six-man team of African-American soldiers, which gave rise to its nickname and the book's title.

The subtitle of Carl S. Adams' memoir, Remember the Alamo: A Sentry Dog Handler's View of Vietnam from the Perimeter of Phan Rang Air Base (Lost Coast, 261 pp., $24.95) just about tells it all. Adams presents a detailed, well-written account of his March 1967 to October 1968 tour as a USAF sentry dog handler at Phan Rang, 35 miles south of Cam Ranh Bay.

Ron Steinman's Inside Television's First War: A Saigon Journal (University of Missouri Press, 262 pp., $29.95) is the author's memoir of his April 1966 to July 1968 stint as the head of NBC's Saigon bureau. Steinman provides much inside-baseball material on how he ran his TV operation. He spends a good deal of time on NBC's extensive coverage of Tet '68 and pronounces his work a success. ``We had a duty, an obligation, to make our stories as accurate and realistic as possible,'' Steinman says, ``and that, I believe, we did.''

Gregory A. Helle calls his war and postwar memoir, A Walk in Hell: The Other Side of War (Xlibris, 364 pp., $32.99, hardcover; $22.99, paper), ``the ramblings of a strange mind.'' It is made up of poetry and short essays chronicling his tour in Vietnam and his battle with PTSD. Solitary Survivor: The First American POW in Southeast Asia, Lawrence R. ``Bob'' Bailey, Jr.'s memoir of his time held prisoner by the Pathet Lao in 1961-62, written with Ron Marz, is now out in paper (Brassey's, 214 pp., $16.95).

Andy O'Meara, Jr.'s Only the Dead Came Home (Elderberry, 182 pp., $19.95, paper) deals primarily with the author's traumatic experiences in the Vietnam War where he served as an adviser with the ARVN's 1st Cavalry Regiment and with the Army's 11th Cavalry. Those experiences led to a case of PTSD, which O'Meara explains in detail.

Michael J. Walsh's  SEAL!, first published in 1994, is back in print (Pocket, 292 pp., $6.99, paper). Walsh did five Vietnam SEAL tours, including a stint as an Operation Phoenix operative. Military historian Kevin Dockery's Navy SEALS: A History, Part III, Post-Vietnam to the Present (Berkley, 455 pp., $22.95) is an oral history with lots of narrative telling the SEALS story since 1975. It's based on interviews by Bud Brutsman.

Karen W. Waggoner's On My Honor: A Navy Wife's Vietnam War (PublishAmerica, 368 pp., $24.95, paper) is a well-constructed, dialogue-heavy account of the author's life from 1968-72 when her husband served as a Navy Chief with Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One going back and forth between Japan, where the family lived, and Vietnam. Waggoner tells the story using the names Pat and Ben Morgan as the wife and husband.

Kathie Costos' For the Love of Jack: His War, My Battle (Xlibris, 143 pp., paper) is the well-told, extremely personal story of her husband's case of PTSD, stemming from his experiences as a teen-aged 101st Airborne trooper in Vietnam in 1969-70. A portion of the book's proceeds will be donated to the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Boston.

Josephine Stockton, born Phin Hang in Saigon, escaped from South Vietnam on the last C-130 out of Tan Son Nhut on April 28, 1975. She tells that dramatic story in A Long Way From Saigon: Phin's Memoirs: From Bar Girl to Dignity (Truman, 312 pp., $19.95, paper). Stockton also reveals details of her rough life growing up, her marriage to Dan Stockton, and her adjustments to life in the United States.

Richard L. Snider's Delta Six: Soldier, Surgeon (Heritage, 239 pp., $23, paper) is the readable story of the author's 1968-69 as a surgeon with the 25th Infantry Division in Cu Chi, Tay Ninh, and Saigon. Snider was drafted into the Army during his first year of surgical training at the Yale University Graduate School of Medicine.

Robert G. Certain's Unchained Eagle: From Prisoner of War to Prisoner of Christ (ETC, 320 pp., $29.95) is an unvarnished account of his imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton from December 1972 to March 1973 after he was shot down over North Vietnam in his B-52. It also deals with his life afterwards as a parish priest.

Roger W. Williams' Vietnam: Sometimes It Was Funny: Personal Observations of the War (Scott Company, 200 pp., paper) contains 43 breezily written, off-beat tales about his 1967-68 Army tour in Vietnam operating a tank. For more info, e-mail vietnamsiwf@hotmail.com

   

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