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may/june 2008

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Reviews by Marc Leepson
Tobias Wolff is best known for his creative nonfiction. His memoirs, This Boy’s Life (1989), which ends just as he’s about to ship out to Vietnam, and In Pharaoh’s Army (1994), his sharply drawn in-country story, have received sterling reviews, and the former was made into a respectable 1993 Hollywood movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. But Wolff, a former Green Beret who teaches writing at Stanford, also is one hell of a short story writer.

Wolff’s latest book, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (Knopf, 379 pp., $26.95) includes 21 “selected” stories; that is, tales taken from his three short fiction collections, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), Back in the World (1985), and The Night in Question (1996). The eleven “new” stories in the new book have been published in such magazines as The New Yorker, Playboy, and Esquire, and in literary journals such as Triquarterly and The Missouri Review.

Which is to say that I had read virtually every one of these stories before—and liked them very much. The good news is that that they all stood up on second reading. Wolff creates one or two sharply drawn, compelling characters and puts them through fast-paced, intriguing stories that quickly come to a fascinating (if sometimes inconclusive) end. These stories are set in many different locations: college campuses, Army bases, prep schools, rural areas, cities.

A few deal with Vietnam veterans. But these aren’t Vietnam War stories. They are three decades worth of first-rate short fiction from one of the greatest literary lights of our generation.

Patrick McGrath’s excellent new novel, Trauma (Knopf, 224 pp., $24.95), bores deeply into the psyche of protagonist Charlie Weir, a New York City psychiatrist who specializes in treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder. In the ’80s, the young shrink feels an obligation to help psychologically damaged Vietnam veterans, and one of the book’s main plot points involves Weir’s work with veterans and the repercussions in his own life following the suicide of one of the men, a guy who happened to be his brother-in-law.

McGrath creates a tense, fast-moving story—one that feels real. That’s especially true with his depictions of Weir’s rap groups and the emotional tribulations of the veteran who ends it all.

Weir looks back on the group of a dozen or more veterans “sitting in a rough circle,” he says. “I see them grinning as though for a group photo, each of those emotionally shattered but still defiant men in their T-shirts and blue jeans, their baseball caps, their tattoos, men in their twenties mostly who’d seen what no human should ever have to see and the pain of it stamped on their faces like boot prints.”

There is no stereotyping here. The characters feel all too real. This is not an easy task, but McGrath handles it effortlessly in this compelling, haunting novel.

Daniel Buckman showed off a gritty style in his first novel, Waters in Darkness (2001), a post-Vietnam War story that dealt with that war’s legacy and the present-day military. Buckman, who was born in 1967 and is a former 82nd Airborne Division trooper, has a jaded, dysfunctional Vietnam veteran as a main player in his latest novel, Because the Rain (Picador, 224 pp., $15, paper). This one’s a very dark affair, set in Chicago, in which every character is weak, corrupt, screwed-up, violent, or a combination of the above. That includes a high-class, beautiful young Vietnamese prostitute.

Miriam Herin’s first novel, Absolution (Novello Festival Press, 320 pp., $22.95), is a well-crafted, well-told tale that deals with the present-day murder of a Vietnam veteran (by a young Vietnamese immigrant) and the veteran’s wife’s search for answers to questions involving his war-time deeds. It includes well-rendered scenes in the jungles of Vietnam.

J.A. Gasperetti served as a draftee with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1966-67. So does the hero, Gil Landon, of Gasperetti’s new novel, Landon’s Odyssey (Author House, 478 pp., $20.95, paper). Gasperetti evokes that time and place in the war in this sprawling tale, which focuses on Landon’s difficult post-war readjustment, and how he deals with it—namely by going on a quest to deliver six letters from his war buddies.

Carl Nelson, a Naval Academy graduate, served four tours in Vietnam; today he’s an accomplished writer. Nelson’s newest thriller, the fast-paced Madam President and the Admiral (New Century Press, 270 pp., $16.95, paper), hones in on the repercussions of China shooting down a U.S. Navy jet in the South China Sea.

The most-honored poet who served in the Vietnam War, Yusef Komunyakaa (who has a Pulitzer Prize for poetry under his literary belt), recently published a dramatic adaptation of Gilgamesh, the epic, ancient Middle Eastern tale often known as “the world’s oldest story.” The book (Wesleyan, 110 pp., $22.95) is a collaboration with theater producer Chad Garcia.

The much-honored poet John Balaban’s latest collection, Path, Crooked Path (Cooper Canyon, 77 pp., $15, paper), contains several war-related works, including “Loving Graham Greene,” a glimpse into the mind of a Vietnam veteran, which is dedicated to the famed Vietnam War correspondent and Vietnam veterans’ advocate, the late Gloria Emerson. Balaban, who is perhaps best known for his translations of traditional Vietnamese poetry, is poet in residence and a professor of English at North Carolina State University.

Kenneth R. Taylor’s book of remembrances and poetry, Vietnam Remembered: My Journey (58 pp., $10, paper), is the result of a vow by the former member of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion to a fellow soldier that whoever made it back home alive would tell the other’s family about what happened in the war. For more info, write to Taylor at 152 Cold Spring Rd., Lewistown, PA 17044.

Marjorie A. Brockman’s Letters, Medals, Roses (Trafford, 39 pp., $13.50, paper) contains poems based on long conversations the author has had over the years with Vietnam veterans, as well as her experiences attending veterans parades, reunions, and ceremonies. The seeds for the book were planted with the author’s participation in the 1986 Chicago Welcome Home Parade.

Boston University English Professor James Anderson Winn’s The Poetry of War (Cambridge University Press, 320 pp., $24.99) is a long essay on centuries of versifying about war, from Homer to Bruce Springsteen. Winn quotes from Tim O’Brien about the Vietnam War, and looks closely at the Vietnam War era work of the poet Phillip Appleman. Lorrie Goldensohn’s Dismantling Glory: Twentieth-Century Soldier Poetry, which includes the author’s examination of Vietnam War poetry, first published in 2003, in now out in paperback (Oxford University Press, 382 pp., $21).

Ed Salven’s affecting book of poetic “episodes and meditations,” The Soldier Factory (Braziller, 160 pp., $24.95), is based on an experience the one-time U.S. Army 1968 draftee had when, more than 30 years later, he visited the now-defunct Fort Ord, the “soldier factory,” where he was stationed. Salven illustrates his versification with photographs and painted portraits of soldiers by college students done in 1994, the year the base closed.

Many of the poems in Jack Moser’s The Murmur of a Gentle Breeze (Fithian Press, 136 pp., $15, paper) are based on Moser’s Navy tour of duty in Vietnam and his work as a psychotherapist and counselor. The poems in Jack L. Thomas’ Whirling Fire (lyndonjacks, 96 pp., $14, paper) are based on the author’s 1969-70 tour of duty as a Mobile Advisory Team officer with the RF/PFs near the Cambodian border. For more info, go to

Mark Grothier’s Poetry of Mark Grothier (TDR, 86 pp., paper) contains four poems based on the author’s U.S. Air Force experiences. For more info, email

The current issue (Vol. 19, No. 1 & 2, 2007) of WLA: War, Literature & the Arts, the literary journal published by the U.S. Air Force Academy, contains the Vietnam War-influenced poetry of U.S. Air Force veteran (1966-69) Dale Ritterbush, who is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The issue also includes a wide-ranging discussion on the subject of war poetry between Ritterbush and Jackson A. Niday II. For an on-line look, go to

In Becton: Autobiography of a Solider and Public Servant (Naval Institute, 336 pp., $29.95), retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton, Jr., offers up a creditable look at his eventful and remarkable life.

The book focuses on Becton’s sterling 40-year (1943-83) Army career in which he served with distinction in three wars. That includes commanding the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry in Vietnam in 1967-68, during which he took part in the fierce fighting in and around Hue in the weeks after Tet ’68. Becton went on to take over as commander of the 101st’s 3rd Brigade at Cu Chi and Phouc Vinh.

Becton, who in 1972 became only the sixth African-American Army general, went on to a distinguished post-military career. He was the third director of FEMA; the president of his alma mater, Prairie View A&M University; and superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. He also served on the American Battle Monuments Commission when it built the National World War II Memorial in Washington.

In The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade (Harvard University, 508 pp., $29.95), St. Andrews (Scotland) University History Prof. Gerard J. DeGroot ranges far and wide offering his strong, sometimes contrarian, opinions on virtually every social and political aspect of our generation’s seminal decade. That includes his treatment of the Vietnam War.

Of Tet ’68, for example, which hawks and doves both consider a military defeat but a political victory for the other side, DeGroot says it “hardly seems a clever psychological victory.” It was, instead, he claims, “a colossal blunder [by the NVA and VC] which prolonged the war, causing unnecessary suffering on both sides.”
In a book crammed to overflowing with facts, DeGroot gets three small ones dealing with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wrong.

On the “black marble” of the “Vietnam Memorial” are “carved the names of 50,000 Americans,” he says. It’s not the “Vietnam Memorial.” It’s the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, so named because The Wall honors those who fought in the war, not the war or the country of Vietnam. The Memorial is made of polished black granite (not marble), and there are more than 58,000 names on it.

Speaking of the The Wall, MT Publishing in Evansville, Indiana, has just published The Wall: 25 Years of Healing and Educating (207 pp., $39.95) in conjunction with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. For more info, call 888-263-4702.

John Maberry’s Waiting for Westmoreland (Eagle Peak Press, 243 pp., $16.95, paper) is more autobiography than memoir, since he offers up his entire life story, rather than his year in the Vietnam War with the Army’s 54th Artillery Group’s 7th Battalion, 9th Artillery, which operated out of Bear Cat. Writing in a breezy, quote-filled style, Maberry chronicles his life and times, which included shaking hands with Gen. Westmoreland following an in-country church service, turning against the war after he came home, and finding inner contentment through Buddhism.



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