Reviews of three new books on the Vietnam
war: Veteran's Day, by Rod Kane, These Good Men, by Michael
Norman and The Phantom Blooper, by Gustav Hasford
Television news may
have made Vietnam America's "living-room war," but if so, it has always
been a living room where someone kept putting out the lights and rearranging
the furniture. No matter how many television shows, books or movies get
made, the subject remains elusive, dancing in and out of our peripheral
vision. A recent trio of books, two memoirs and a novel, argue persuasively
that the trick is not unriddling Vietnam but rather learning how to live
with its memory.
Rod Kane's memoir Veteran's Day (314 pages. Orion Books. $18. 95) describes his return from the war in 1966 to a country that didn't want to hear him or hire him. Unable to hold a job or maintain any emotional relationship, the former Army combat medic drifted through a decade of alcoholism before he pulled himself together with the help of Veterans Administration group-therapy sessions and the dawning realization that "Vietnam, combat, is ours to deal with. No one else back here has that experience . . . We, who have the problems because of it, are the ones who can solve it."
Kane is often self-indulgent and amateurish--in fact, he can be a slob of a writer--but he'll try anything. When he describes what battle is like and how the memory plays on for years, troubling sleepand waking moments alike, he writes well enough to put sweat on your palms.
Michael Norman, a former New York Times reporter and a far more professional writer than Kane, can't touch him when it comes to making scenes and people live on the page. Norman worries too much about smoothing away the rough edges of his story. But These Good Men (310 pages. Crown Publishers. $19.95) pairs well with Veteran's Day. A Marine in Vietnam during 1968-69, Norman saw 19 of the 110 men in his company killed and 30 wounded in three days of heavy fighting at Bridge 28 below Khe Sanh in April 1968. Sixteen years later he set out to find the survivors of his platoon, to see, as he puts it, what "verities" they brought back from battle.
Some came home with physical scars. Others were damaged more obscurely. Everyone paid. But as Norman crisscrossed the country, tracking down his buddies, he discovered that "time and distance aside, we were still a circle, our places held by memory, each a part of each." As one of the men says, "Men don't talk about love very well as far as men loving other men. But when it comes down to it, I've loved more men than women."
These Good Men is really about the consolations of friendship, and if it ends affirmatively, it is never foolish, because Norman understands the irony of his territory: that love as intense and lasting as anything produced in peacetime should arise out of the awful circumstances of war.
Novelist Gustav Hasford's vision leaves no room for healing. His protagonist, Marine Private Joker, first met in Hasford's earlier, superb novel The Short-Timers--on which director Stanley Kubrick based Full Metal Jacket--can only mourn what's gone, the "men who died not at a place but at a grid coordinate, scattered bones now, torn apart by tigers and eaten by ants. I want to live with the tigers and the ants. I want to be with my friends."
The Phanton Blooper (243 pages. Bantam Books. $17.95) begins in the last surreal days of Khe Sanh and moves on to the year Joker spends as a Viet Cong prisoner in 1968-69, experiencing the war from the other side in a primitive village with no electricity, "no billboards, no plumbing, no telephone poles, no restaurants, no ice, no ice cream, no television, no freeways, no pickup trucks, no frozen pizza."
Rescued, hospitalized and then sent home, Joker finds himself unfit for civilian life. He is literally a phantom, fueled by anger and a keen if cockeyed eye for life's lunatic moments: a Viet Cong soldier assiduously reading Dale Carnegie in French; his own mother, moments after watching her son pull a gun on his stupid stepfather at the dinner table, muttering distractedly, "There's banana pudding for dessert."
The real "eye" here, of course, belongs to Hasford, like Joker a combat correspondent who with equal facility can describe a hospital ward crowded with paraplegics, a Viet Cong indoctrination class and an Alabama supper table. This furious yet compassionate book, though not as tautly focused as The Short-Timers, is in every other way its equal. Hasford doesn't believe in happy endings, but he does believe in keeping faith with the truth, however ugly, as a means of salvation. "I'd rather be killed in a war than be bored to death an inch at a time," Joker says at the end of his story. "In the village of Hoa Binh I was free. I was not a helpless pawn. I had a future. I had friends who could be trusted. War is real and men need reality like they need air and food."
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