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

September/October 2002

Tim O'Brien Talks 'Bout Our Generation In Latest Excursion


Tim O'Brien is one of the nation's top literary novelist whose writing often reflects his service in the Vietnam War. In July, July (Houghton Mifflin, 336 pp., $26), his latest novel, O'Brien's subject is the legacy of the war and the 1960s on a group of folks who graduated from college in 1969. O'Brien, a one‑time 196th Light Infantry Brigade rifleman, brings the group together for a messy reunion in July of 2000.  

Virtually every character, from the baseball star who lost a leg in the war, to the guy who fled to Canada‑and including every female character‑is messed up big time. These stumbling boomers are either bitterly divorced, unhappily married, unfulfilled sexually, or all of the above. It's not exactly a pretty picture, but O'Brien makes characters come alive. He keeps the plot moving along swimmingly. The dialogue rings true. And the story's flashbacks gel nicely with the events of the long, hot weekend. 

There hasn't been anything like a Great American Novel dealing with the Vietnam War generation. July, July comes close to filling that void. O'Brien tackles our generation's issues now and then, but doesn't offer answers to any of his characters' tough questions. Still, O'Brien forces the reader to ponder those questions and to identify with the characters' battles. “Used to be,” one character says, “we'd talk about the Geneva Accords, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Now it's down to liposuction and ex‑husbands. Can't trust anybody over sixty.”   


Let Their Spirits Dance by Stella Pope Duarte (Rayo/HarperCollins, 312 pp., $24.95) is a moving, beautifully crafted first novel that explores the lasting legacy of the Vietnam War on a Latino family in Phoenix. Duarte's story is peopled with many characters, but the stars are a religious mother still grieving in 1997 and an embittered but empowered younger sister still carrying her beloved brother's death while working through many other family problems. 

Duarte sets up an epic journey in which nearly the entire large family caravans from Phoenix to The Wall. Many things take place along the way as the plot ends in an unexpected and emotional finale in Washington. The characters are vividly drawn. The story draws you in. The issues‑the war's ongoing personal legacy among veterans and their family members and the nation as a whole‑are real and alive.  


James Lee Burke's latest Dave Robicheaux detective novel, Jolie Blon's Bounce (Simon & Schuster, 349 pp., $25), follows in the large footprints of its predecessors. It's a page‑turning, densely plotted story peopled with a cast of over‑the‑top southern Louisiana characters enmeshed in a gory story replete with grisly murders, rapes, and other sordid activities. At the center is our slightly blemished hero, New Iberia Parish police detective Dave Robicheaux, a good man haunted by many of life's burdens, including a gruesome tour as an Army LT in the Vietnam War and the murders of his first wife and daughter. 

Dave is again abetted by his former NOPD crony and fellow Nam vet, the self‑destructive Clete Purcell. An excellent writer, Burke deals with many real‑life issues, including race, politics (Louisiana style), environmental issues, legal rights, and the death penalty. But at heart this is a detective story at its finest. 


The Wished For Country (Curbstone, 340 pp., $19.95, paper), Wayne (Lost Armies, et al.) Karlin's sixth and latest top‑notch novel, has nothing to do with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans. The novel is set in mid‑17th century Maryland and deals primarily with the lives of an indentured servant, a slave, and a Piscataway Indian. Karlin, a language and literature professor at the College of Southern Maryland, was a Marine door gunner in the Vietnam War. 

The acclaimed novelist Reynolds Price (Kate Vaiden, et al.) deals with the Vietnam War era's impact on a young North Carolinian in the technically able but unsatisfying Noble Norfleet (Scribner, 307 pp., $26). The title character is eighteen in 1968 and is beset by angst, beginning with the fact that his crazed mother kills his two younger siblings.  

He's also having an affair with his high school Spanish teacher (a woman), dealing with his missing father, having occasional strange visions, and fending off the sexual advances of his local preacher (a man). To escape, Noble joins the Army and volunteers to be a medic. He spends thirteen months in Vietnam and comes home to face more troubles, including his own rocky emotional readjustment. Price knows how to create characters, set scenes, and tell a good story. But the plot just limps along with not much drama after Noble comes home from the war. 

Brit thriller spinner Lee Child, who brought us Tripwire (1999)‑in which grumpy super hero Jack Reacher, a post‑VN ex‑MP, defeats a disfigured sociopathic Vietnam veteran‑is back with a second Reacher, Without Fail (Putnam, 374 pp., $24.95). In this one Reacher outwits two sadistic bad guys out to kill the vice president‑elect. We discover that Reacher is the son of a Marine Korean and Vietnam War veteran, a “gentle, shy, sweet, loving man, but a stone‑cold killer, too. Harder than a nail.” 

The Vintage Book of War Fiction (Vintage, 416 pp., $14, paper), edited by Sebastyian Faulks and Jorg Hensgen, contains work by a panoply of the greatest writers on the subject. The list includes Philip Caputo, Larry Heinemann, Joseph Heller, Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Tom O'Brien, Erich Maria Remarque, James Salter, Siegfried Sassoon, and Kurt Vonnegut.  

New in paper: James Webb's latest novel, Lost Soldiers (Dell, 446 pp., $7.50), a page‑turning thriller that deals with MIAs and current‑day Vietnam; Randy Lee Eickhoff's Return to Ithaca (Forge, 496 pp., $15,95), which focuses on the Odysseus‑like travails of a Vietnam War veteran; and James E. Davidson's Highway One: A Vietnam War Story (iUniverse, 251 pp., $14.95), a cleverly written satire about military advisers set in Vietnam in 1968‑the year the author spent as an infantry platoon leader and a RF/PF adviser. 

Also: Sammy Weygand's Color Blind (Color Blind, 225 pp., $14.95), a cleverly plotted story about a black farmer who raises a white boy in the Korean War period; Douglas Neralich's Dear Donna: It's Only 45 Hours from Bien Hoa: Stories from the Vietnam War (1st Books, 98 pp.), a collection of linked autobiographical stories about an Army medic and his tour with the 36th Engineer Battalion in the Delta; and former SEAL Team Five Commander Larry Simmons' thriller, Broken Seals: No Safe Place (Penmarin, 276 pp.), which deals with Palestinian terrorists' attempt to attack the U.S.A. 


Many photographers took notable images during the Vietnam War. None were responsible for as many as Larry Burrows, the Life magazine ace who covered the war from 1961 until he was killed in a 1971 helicopter crash. Larry Burrows' Vietnam (Knopf, 244 pp., $50) is an outstanding tribute. It contains image after image of almost hyper‑realistic views of the war in its many aspects over those ten years.  

A few photos have blazed their way into the national psyche, including the series of shots Burrows took on March 31, 1965, of life and death aboard a U.S. helicopter. There are plenty of less‑well‑known photos in the book that are just as evocative, including the image of three astoundingly young‑appearing Marines landing in Danang also in March 1965. David Halberstam, in the book's introduction, says Burrows “became the signature photographer of” the Vietnam War, “a man whose journalism, in the opinion of his colleagues and editors, reached the level of art.” 


Why the North Won the Vietnam War (Palgrave Macmillan, 254 pp., $69.96, hardcover; $22.95, paper) edited by Marc Jason Gilbert, is a collection of essays by several top Vietnam War historians presented at an academic conference at Gettysburg College in October 2000. Gilbert, a history professor at North Georgia College and State University, contributes one essay and a meaty introduction in which he explains the “standard interpretation” as to why the North won, along with various “revisionist” interpretations. His contributors include George C. Herring, John Prados, Andrew Rotter, Earl H. Tilford, and Marilyn Young. 

Stephen A. Kent's From Slogans to Mantras: Social Protest and Religious Conversion in the Late Vietnam War Era (Syracuse University, 224 pp., $49.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper) focuses on a little‑studied aspect of the antiwar movement: the conversion of many radical antiwarriors into acolytes of new religions. Kent, who was a self‑described “twenty‑two‑year‑old hippie” in 1974, today is a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. 

In Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Vietnam (Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., $26), the prolific author Jeffrey Meyers spins out a dual biography of the famed high‑living actor and his thrill‑seeking son. Not surprisingly, Flynn was a  lousy father, neglecting his son in favor of the substance‑abusing Hollywood fast lane. Sean Flynn ran off to Southeast Asia and covered the war as a freelance photographer on and off from 1966 to 1970 when he and his colleague, Dana Stone, disappeared after being captured by the VC in Cambodia. Meyers says Flynn and Stone were killed in 1971.  


John Ketwig's And A Hard Rain Fell: A GI's True Story of the War in Vietnam (Sourcebooks, 400 pp., $15) is a reprint, with a new introduction, of Ketwig's well‑received, well‑written 1982 Vietnam War memoir in which the author reflects, often bitterly, on his 1967‑68 tour in Vietnam and Thailand.  W.D. Ehrhart's The Madness of It All: Essays on War, Literature, and American Life (McFarland, 273 pp., $32) contains 43 essays on a variety of topics, including the Vietnam War. Ehrhart, a former Marine, has written extensively about the war in three memoirs and many first‑rate poems. 

Wesley L. Fox, a Marine mustang who retired as a colonel in 1993, tells his life story in Marine Rifleman: Forty‑Three Years in the Corps (Brassey's, 395 pp., $27.95), a cleanly written account with a vivid retelling of the events in the A Shau Valley in 1968, in which Fox, a 1st Lt. with Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, was awarded the Medal of Honor. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, uses many examples from the Vietnam War in his well‑received book, Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat (PublicAffairs, 479 pp., $18). 

VVA Member David L. Eastman's Outlaws in Vietnam: 1966‑67 in the Delta (Peter E. Randall, 457 pp., $25) is a well written memoir that evokes Eastman's eventful tour as a helicopter pilot with the 175th Aviation Company. Noonie Fortin's Women at Risk: We Also Served (iUniverse, 468 pp., $24.95), with Diane Carlson Evans and Earl Hopper, Sr., offers profiles of more than sixty women who served the nation in the military and as civilian volunteers since World War II. 

Elaine Cochrane Murphy's Dearest Angel: From Vietnam to the Wall (ACW Press, 124 pp., $10) is an affecting tribute to her husband, U.S. Army Lt. John Cochrane, who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1966, told in poems, verse, and photos. Josef W. Rokus' The Professionals: History of the Phu Lam, Vietnam U.S. Army Communications Base (Xlibris, 523 pp., $22.94) is a thorough account that begins in 1951 and ends in 1975. Rokus, the Phu Lam base's assistant operations officer in 1967‑68, also was the unit's history officer.  

The Rev. Amy L. Snow's The Endless Tour: Vietnam, PTSD and the Spiritual Void (Trafford, 251 pp. $21.95) contains a general account of Post‑traumatic Stress Disorder, along with details of how the author and her husband, Dwight, have coped with his post‑Vietnam War emotional difficulties.  


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