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

January/February 2003
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

Fiction From Vietnam's Most Controversial Writer

BY MARC LEEPSON

Nguyen Huy Thiep is one of the most accomplished writers in Vietnam. He is also one of the most controversial. A novelist and short-fiction writer who spent the American War years teaching in a rural area in the mountains of northern Vietnam, Thiep is an iconoclastic realist. The seventeen stories in Crossing the River (Curbstone, 352 pp., $16.95, paper)—some of which date to the mid-1980s—offer a revealing snapshot of Thiep’s work.

These tales are filled with loutish men, bewildered and emotionally battered women and traumatized children. The characters typically are trapped in dispirited lives that are shaped by the legacy of the Indochinese Wars of the latter half of the twentieth century and by the post-1975 political excesses of Vietnam’s communist government. Thiep’s unsparing look at life under communism has gained him ardent admirers in Vietnam and internationally. It also has put him at odds with the powers that be at home. Despite scathing reviews of his work and his ideas by state-sponsored critics, Thiep’s fiction has strongly influenced young Vietnamese writers and won him a wide following abroad.

The stories in Crossing the River are uniformly well told. It’s difficult to get a feel for the subtleties of an author’s style in a translated work. What can be said, though, is that the dozen translators—including Nguyen Qui Duc, the journalist, memoirist and National Public Radio commentator, and Dana Sachs, a journalist who spent most of the 1990s teaching in Vietnam—have worked well together. Nguyen Huy Thiep’s unique writing style comes across in each of the stories. That style features a good deal of dialogue and staccato bursts of short, blunt sentences. It also features casts of first-named or unidentified characters, often members of an extended family, as well as infusions of poetry.

ANOTHER GREAT ROBICHEAUX

Readers of this column know that I’m a big fan of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux detective novels. Burke’s latest, Last Car to Elysian Fields (Simon & Schuster, 335 pp., $24.95), another highly entertaining and gritty tale set in New Iberia Parish and New Orleans. Dave, once again, is up to his elbows in bodies and personal trouble. He’s trying to solve an old murder and two new ones and he’s trying to keep sober in the wake of the death of his second wife. Dave’s partner in unorthodox crime-solving, once again, is his old buddy and fellow Vietnam veteran, Clete Purcell. Dave and Clete, a semi-disgraced former NOPD detective, run afoul of the law as they trey to solve the new and old murders.

Burke fills the book with quirky, memorable characters and redolent evocations of southern Louisiana. There’s plenty of violence. Burke also slings some well-aimed political arrows aimed at chickenhawk politicos, including this observation: “Politicians who themselves had avoided active service and never had listened to the sounds a flame thrower extracted from its victims, or zipped up body bags on the faces of their best friends, clamored for war and stood proudly in front of the flag while they sent others off to fight it.”

FICTION IN BRIEF

I didn’t get around to reading Richard Preston’s Christmas story, The Boat of Dreams (Touchstone, 111 pp., $15), until after our December issue went to press. The book is billed as a “novel,” but is really novella. It’s the simply told tale of a struggling family in Maine. The father gets called up to serve in Vietnam and word comes just before Christmas that he’s missing in action, most likely killed. Amid the family’s grief they are visited by venal, greedy men and by a spectral presence. To tell anymore would give away too much. Not to be Scrooge-like, but the best thing I can say about this thin story is that the author wrote it for a friend dying of cancer and is donating part of the proceeds to medical research in the Women’s Cancer Program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Jessica Hagedorn’s richly imagined Dream Jungle (Viking, 325 pp., $23.95) is set mostly in the Philippines in the early 1970s. The multi-faceted plot includes a not-flattering look at an American film crew that descends upon the island to make a movie called "Napalm Sunset." It’s a stand in for Apocalypse Now, with an obsessed Francis Coppola-like director, a drugged out Dennis Hopper-like actor, a put-upon Eleanor Coppola-like director’s wife who’s making a documentary, and an egomaniacally pompous, rotund Marlon Brando-like big star. There’s even a scene with a real tiger. The novel shifts in time and point of view and revolves around the story of a poor Filipina and her rocky life and times.

Barry Eisler’s Hard Rain (Putnam, 320 pp., $24.95) is set in Tokyo and features main character John Rain, a Japanese-American Vietnam veteran. Is Rain a free-lance photographer? A real estate mogul? A sushi bar owner? Of course not. He’s a Nam vet, so he makes a living in the way that most former GI killing machines did, as a government assassin. Eisler tell us that Rain was a natural-born killer before he went to Nam. That would explain it, I guess. Chalk up another in a long line of cold Nam vet killing machines going about their grisly business in a noire thriller.

Scott M. Morris’s well-structured Waiting for April (Algonquin, 340 pp., $24.95) is a look at the life of a young man who grows up in the seventies in a small very Southen Florida Panhandle town. The hero’s deceased father is a Vietnam veteran from out of town who never fit in. His mother is wildly eccentric. He pines after his youthful Aunt April who helped raise him and is dominated by April’s heavy-drinking, foul-mouthed, husband who also happens to have done a tour in the Vietnam War. The hero overcomes mainly by becoming being a great football player. Along the way, strange family truths are unveiled.

A LOVE STORY IN VIETNAM

James Sullivan’s introspective, well-observed Over the Moat: Love Among the Ruins of Imperial Vietnam (Picador, 368 pp., $15, paper) provides an on-the-ground look at life in Vietnam in the early 1990s. Sullivan went to Vietnam in 1992 to co-write an article for a bicycling magazine. In Hue he met and fell in love with a Vietnamese woman. His book describes in detail—and with much reconstructed dialogue—the frustrating trials he faced trying to woe and win the woman, Thuy, and to arrange their marriage.

Sullivan, a working class South Boston college graduate, vividly and accurately describes the vast cultural gulf between Americans and Vietnamese. And he chillingly conveys the obstacles he and Thuy faced with the Hanoi government’s totalitarian bureaucracy.

The American war comes into play regularly in the book. Sullivan makes no secret of his belief that the war was an American mistake. But he also clearly shows the excesses of the victorious North Vietnamese, especially the second-class status imposed on former South Vietnamese soldiers and government officials. One American Vietnam veteran makes an appearance—a Nam-war-obsessed hothead expatriate.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

In American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, & Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 480 pp., $34.95), retired Army Col. Peter Kindsvatter tackles the thorny question posed by the novelist and former WWII infantryman James Jones: What “makes a man go out into dangerous places and get himself shot at with increasing consistency?” Kindsvetter, the Command Historian at Aberdeen Proving Ground, delves deeply into the subject by looking into the many aspects of the experience of combat. He effectively mines the memoirs of American soldiers, oral histories, and even fictional accounts of men at war. That includes the work of some of the most insightful writers about the Vietnam War, such as Christian Appy, Eric Bergerud, Philip Caputo, W.D. Ehrhart, Albert French, Jack Fuller, Gus Hasford, Larry Heinemann, Michael Herr, John Ketwig, Tim O’Brien, and Wallace Terry.

Kindvasser covers many aspects of the war-time combat experience, including the role of rear-echelon troops. “The rear-echelon soldier was selfish and uncaring, from the perspective of the combatant,” he notes. “In reality, most rear-echelon soldiers worked hard, conscientiously, and honestly to support the combat soldier. The more perceptive support troops were well aware of how much better off they were than their compatriots at the front and genuinely sympathized with the combat soldiers’ plight.”

Larry Chambers’ Recondo: LRRPs in the 101st Airborne (Ballantine/Presidio, 281 pp., $7.50), first published in 1992, has been reissued with a new introduction by the author, who served with L Co., 75th Infantry and F. Co. of the 58th LRP in Vietnam. Chambers wrote his war memoir, he says, “to show a different point of view” of American soldiers in Vietnam—“a bunch of heroic young Americans fighting a very tough and seasoned foe.” The men he served with, Chambers says, “were the bravest, boldest, most audacious bunch of guys I’ve ever had the pleasure to be with.”

Stan Krasnoff’s Shadows on the Wall (Allen and Unwin/IPG, 193 pp., $15.95, paper) tells the story of the author’s involvement in Project Rapid Fire, a then-secret black ops mission undertaken near the Cambodian border prior to Tet ’68. Krassnoff was an Australian Army captain assigned to an American Special Forces unit. He tells his story well, using rapid-fire prose and much reconstructed dialogue.

Ever wonder who designed the circular bronze disc with a dragon behind a bamboo tree grove on the Vietnam Service Medal? It was Thomas Jones, a former sculptor who worked for the U.S. Army’s Institute of Heraldry. That information—along with just about everything else you ever wanted to know on the subject of Marine Corps medals—is contained in James G. Thompson’s clearly written and well illustrated Complete Guide to United States Marine Corps Medals, Badges and Insignia (Medals of America, 131 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper). MOA Press also publishes guides to U.S. Army, Navy, and Air and South Vietnamese military medals, badges and insignia.

The newly published updated edition of Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs (Norton, 224 pp., $30, paper) edited by Cyma Rubin and Eric Newton contains several Vietnam War images, including arguably the two most famous:
Eddie Adams' 1968 photo of ARVN General Loan shooting a VC prisoner in the head during Tet, and Nick Ut’s 1973 photo of the naked young South Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm raid.

Tom Quinn Kumpf’s latest book is Ireland: Standing Stones to Stormont (Devenish Press, 168 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper), a collection of startlingly realistic photos of outdoor Irish scenes. Kumpf is a U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran who has been active in veterans’ issues for many years. He’s also an internationally acclaimed, award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in many publications and in exhibitions in the United States and Europe.

Duane Heisinger, a Naval Academy graduate who served three offshore Vietnam War tours on Navy destroyers, has written an excellent, in-depth account of his father’s three years as a WWII POW, Father Found: Life and Death as A Prisoner of the Japanese in World War II (Zulon Press, 584 pp., $20.50, paper).

In paper: Retired Army Gen. E.M. Flanagan Jr.’s Airborne: A Combat History of American Airborne Forces (Ballantine/Presidio, 496 pp., $17.95), which contains a seven-page chapter on the Vietnam War; Ed Regis’s The Biology of Doom: The History of America’s Secret Germ Warfare Project (Holt/Owl, 259 pp., $15), first published in 1999, which includes a look at American biological weapons developed during the Vietnam War; and Paul Stillwell’s The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers (Naval Institute Press, 304 pp., $18.95), first published in 1993, which takes the book’s theme through the Vietnam War.

   

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