Books in Review II

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Welcome to “Books in Review II,” an online feature that complements “Books in Review,” which runs in The VVA Veteran, the national magazine of Vietnam Veterans of America.

This site contains book reviews by several contributors, while other reviews appear in each issue of The VVA Veteran. Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:

Marc Leepson
Arts Editor, The VVA Veteran
Vietnam Veterans of America
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Email your comments, questions, and suggestions to mleepson@vva.org

–Marc Leepson, Books Editor

Reaching by Allen Dorfman

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Allen Dorfman was drafted into the U.S. Army and served a 1967-68 tour of duty as an infantryman in Vietnam. He wrote Reaching (CreateSpace, 278 pp., $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle)  in the early 1970s. It is a decent in-country infantry novel that seems more like a thinly disguised memoir.

The cover blurb does an excellent job of encapsulating the novel. To wit: “In the spring of 1967, Hal Patsin receives his draft notice as the Vietnam War escalates. He plans to register as a conscientious objector—until his father says, ‘I’ve never asked for anything, Patty, but now I ask this: Serve your country.’”

So the oddly named Patty goes off to Vietnam a grunt determined never to fire his M-16. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, however, Patty is where the action is, and his resolution does not last long. He fires that M-16 because he doesn’t want to let down his friends Mac, Italy, Doc, and Timmy.

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The author in Vietnam

A lot of the usual Vietnam War combat novel things happen to Patty and his friends. They complain that they don’t get to fight Hitler like their fathers did. They talk about going back to The World.  They sing “Green, Green Grass of Home.” They get into a mess of red ants and have conflicts with a green LT. Friendly fire takes its toll. They envy Bonnie and Clyde after they see the movie. Leeches get them; Humphrey Bogart and “The African Queen” come up.

This group of grunts—like so many of us in the Vietnam War generation—has been much affected by boyhoods spent watching movies and television and reading comic books. John Wayne, strong silent cowboys in white hats, abd western saloons have filled their brains.

But their war does not measure up to that preparation. They want to get out of Dodge. Who can blame them?

Buy his book. I suspect it is the only one that Allen Dorfman—who today enjoys a nice life in Spokane, Washington, with his beautiful family, including two granddaughters—will ever write.  It’s a miracle he lived to write this one.

The author’s website is allendorfman.blogspot.com

—David Willson

 

No Apology by Richard Foerster

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No Apology: A REMF Draftee’s Tour of Duty in Vietnam by Richard D. Foerster (Lulu Press, 65 pp., $25.80, paper, $20, e book) is a clearly written, brief account of the author’s experiences in the Vietnam War where he served from August 1968 to June 1969. The book begins with Foerster’s “freedom bird” flight back home to California for compassionate leave. A timeline provides a valuable source of the highlights of Foerster’s tour, augmented by color photos he took in Vietnam.

“As an eighteen year old who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, registering for the draft was a rite of passage,” Foerster writes, “and a reality.” In 1966 Foerster—a VVA life member—married and went to work at Audio Graphic Supply. Mentioning the word “supply” during his induction interview “got me assigned to Supply School in the Quartermaster Corps,” he writes, which led to rear echelon duty in Vietnam as a “Refrigerator Man” at USARV Headquarters Mess No. 3 at Long Binh Post

Dick Foerster’s supply clerk MOS challenged him to keep the mess hall supplied within budget. “I also looked for ‘deals’ that added to our menus,” he writes. “Once a semi-truck load of ice cream had to be distributed because no freezer was available at the docks. I took all the drums that would fit and we were able to offer ice cream at breakfast, lunch, and dinner for weeks thereafter.”

Some food items were valuable on the local underground economy. But Foerster did not give in to the temptation to cash in. One such item was raisins. “We got them in #10 cans any time a recipe called for even just a few,” he writes. “Each can was worth about $20 on the black market, but I didn’t allow unauthorized use.”

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There were about 18 civilian workers employed at various jobs in his mess hall, Foerster says. “One of the workers came to me and said that [another workers] was having her baby. Baby, what baby?” That turned out to be one delivery Mess Hall #3 was not equipped to receive, so Foerster drove the woman to the base gate where she had to “walk through the ‘exit maze’ before re-boarding the truck. She didn’t live far away, so we saw her safely to the door at her doctor’s office”

Some red alert attacks interrupted the usual peace at Long Binh before Foerster was sent home early. His main regret: “I wish I’d kept a diary. I wish I had taken more pictures.”

I also wish Dick Foerster had kept a diary and taken more pics, as I enjoyed reading the book even without them.

—Curt Nelson

The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery by Ron Chase

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Ron Chase served in the U. S. Army during the Vietnam War in Korea and Alaska. The subject of Chase’s novel, The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery (Down East Books, 160 pp., $16.95, paper), Bernard Patterson, also served in the Army. As a nineteen year old during the peak of the Vietnam War, he was a tunnel rat for three tours of duty.

The prologue notes that like “hundreds of thousands of other young men who served during the Vietnam era, we both returned disillusioned, distrustful of our government institutions and with an abiding sense we no longer fit neatly into the society we left.” Patterson deals with his disillusion by robbing the Northern National Bank in Mars Hill, Maine, on November 12, 1971. He escapes with $110,000. When I read the details of that robbery, it seemed like a comedy of errors as Patterson muddled his way through the event and escaped.

When Patterson is interviewed later about what caused him to rob the bank, he says the federal government promised to pay for his college education, but when he asked for the money, the government refused. Patterson—all of five-feet, three-inches tall and 140 pounds—uses the considerable skills he learned in Vietnam as a tunnel rat and paratrooper to elude capture for seven months. He had been awarded four Bronze Stars for valor.

One of his neighbors in Mars Hill say that “he was alright until he came home from the Army.”  I heard that often myself, and when I heard it, I had the thought that many Americans wished that Vietnam veterans had not returned from our war.

By the time Patterson is captured, he’s traveled 20,000 miles in seven countries on three continents. He is much underestimated by the FBI and other law enforcement personnel who pursue him. Someone asks: “How did an unsophisticated, under-educated young man from rural Northern Maine elude the might of American law enforcement?”

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Nancy and Ron Chase

I suggest that you read this fascinating book for the story alone, including finding out in detail where the money winds up. In seven months Patterson spends the $110,000 on what’s often referred to as “wine, women and song.” Actually, not that much song, but a lot of wine, the most expensive that Switzerland, France, and England had to offer.

Ultimately, Bernard Patterson remains a mystery. As the author says, “he has an enigmatic, convoluted, uncompromising persona.”

I highly recommend this book to those who want to learn about what one fictional Vietnam veteran chooses to do with his life after coming home from the war.

Patterson pays the price for his bank escapade. After a lengthy time in prison, he settles down to become a pot farmer and dealer. His time in prison had been spent learning about marijuana horticulture; he learned it well.

The author’s website is ronchaseoutdoors.com

—David Willson

Perfume River Nights by Michael P. Maurer

 

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Michael P. Maurer enlisted in the Army and served as an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division in the Vietnam War. Maurer moved to Vietnam in 2003. He stayed there until 2009. He took more than twelve years to complete his novel, Perfume River Nights (North Star Press, 329 pp., $14.95, paper), most of which was written in Vietnam.

The novel’s main character, Jimmy Miller, called Singer by his platoon mates, is the same age, 18, as Maurer was when he served in Vietnam. I don’t think that is the only similarity between the author and the protagonist.

As the novel’s title indicates, some of the story takes place in Hue (the Perfume River runs through it), after most of the fighting is over during Tet 1968 and the city is destroyed. Later, the novel moves to the A Shau Valley, where the scenes are cloaked  in great darkness due to the dense forest overhead. The platoon stumbles into an enemy base camp in the Valley and dire things ensue, all of which are well described and had me on the edge of my seat.

That includes bad leadership, which is decried often in this book. Fragging is suggested more than once. “Inept leaders and stupid orders” dog the platoon throughout. Their lieutenant tries to pick up a booby trap and blows himself and others up. At one point a character says he’d kill for a glass of water. Bees attack them. Our hero receives a Dear John letter. His letters to his mom are lies that tell her he is in a base camp watching a lot of old movies.

Our hero is angry all the time. After seven months, Miller refuses to shoot his rifle anymore. His Top Sergeant and the new Captain send him to Camp Eagle where he’ll “finish out [his] tour with the company support elements.”

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Maurer

We get many of the same motifs in this novel that are in the the hundreds of in-country fictional works that preceded it, but the writing is much better than in most infantry novels.

We hear “It don’t mean nothing;” we get the phrase, “the things they carried,” as well as rants against REMFs (“fuckin’ pogues”), shit-burning details, shake and bake leaders, chickenshit deferments, clerks with nervous fingers, friendly fire, and cowboys and Indians.

Near the end  we are told that there is no glory in killing, but the novel already made that more than clear to this reader.

Perfume River Nights is a superb novel of the American infantry in Vietnam, and I highly recommend it. If I were still teaching a class on the war, I’d use this novel as a text and the class would learn a lot from it.

I rank Perfume River Nights right up there with Marlantes’ Matterhorn, even though Matterhorn is at least twice the size.

The author’s website is www.michaelpmaurer.com

—David Willson

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlan

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Anna Quindlen, a newspaper columnist and novelist, writes bestsellers. Her books are about the American family. Her target audience is mostly American women. She has ventured into new territory in her latest novel, Miller’s Valley (Random House, 272 pp., $28), with varied success.

Mimi Miller is the narrator of this family saga, which begins in the 1960s and follows the family and its toxic secrets to the present. We are told that Mimi’s mother struggled to maintain her family, but all it says about Tommy, one of the two sons, is that he “becomes unrecognizable.” I wondered what it meant, but I had my suspicions. Only as we get into the book do we learn that he joined the military and fought in the Vietnam War.

Tommy’s story becomes the backbone of this sad novel. Mimi’s ostensible obsession with the flooding of Miller Valley is the surface subject of the book.

“When my brother had finally come home for good, people said he was changed man,” Mimi says. “That wasn’t true. He looked a little like Tommy Miller, and sometimes he even talked a little like Tommy Miller. But the real Tommy Miller was gone. I don’t know where he left him, but that guy didn’t live in Miller’s Valley anymore. One day a car had dropped him opposite the barn just as I was getting home from school. I wrapped my arms around his neck, but it was like hugging a mannequin. He peeled me off as soon as was decent, or maybe sooner.”

She goes on: “We weren’t even sure where he’d been.  He’d been gone more than three years, but Eddie was certain he hadn’t been in the service all that time. It was funny, Tom had changed so much but Eddie hadn’t changed much at all, still serious and a little anxious.”

Tommy “even scared me a little,” Mimi says. “He’d grown a big moustache and his hair was even longer now, and everything about him had coarsened, his skin, his body, his language, his eyes. The light in his eyes was gone, and so was the grin. That broke my mother’s heart I think.”

Later she says: “Tommy was one of those drunks who went through all the stages: sociable, silent, mean, nasty, violent. He tuned my father up, although he’d probably say it was the other way around.”

Mimi and the author are right on the money about how mother gets freaked out about the long hair and the big mustache, but to choose the word “coarsened” for his changes is hardhearted. It’s one example of too many false and suspicious notes that Quindlen hits in this short book.  Three years are about right for him to be gone, for one thing. Also, the use of term “being in the service” is not right for a tour of duty in Vietnam.

Mimi’s curiosity about Tommy’s tour of duty continues throughout the novel. “Every once in a while,” she says, “Tommy would get drunk and say something like ‘the bugs, man, you can’t even believe the size of the bugs. They’ll eat you for breakfast.’ But you couldn’t ask him a direct question about Vietnam.  On the news they showed some boys who burnt their draft cards. And Tom said, ‘I wasn’t even drafted, I signed up of my own free will.’ Then he laughed and laughed, and then he started to cry and he fell asleep on the couch before dinner and had disappeared by morning.

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Anna Quindlen

“Sometimes at the diner one of the old guys would say, ‘they make it look pretty bad over there, son.’ And Tom would say one of two things, either, ‘You have no idea’ or ‘You don’t want to know.’ Then someone would say that we had to beat the communists or they would take over everything, and Tommy would stand up and leave. He always got comped because Mr. Venti told the waitresses we had to honor his service to our country, even though I wasn’t sure Tom felt that way himself.”

I believe the comments of the old guys in the diner. But a Vietnam veteran getting comped for his food during that era was hard for me to swallow.

Later we’re told that he “took a lot of pills, some to help him get up in the morning, some to help with the pain in his leg. He took something that was supposed to make him puke if he drank, and he took it and drank anyway and got so sick he seemed he would turn his insides out. ‘I always start the day with good intentions,’ he said to me once.

“Sometimes he would even fulfill them. He would help my father deliver a heavy engine in the truck to someone, or he would pick up groceries for Ruth. He would sit with her and watch television, and he would make the two of them baloney sandwiches with mustard and potato chips. And then he would disappear and we wouldn’t see him for days, maybe longer….  Usually when he turned up again he looked exhausted, and sometimes he was bruised, or cut up.”

Mimi would sometimes watch him sleep on the couch. She didn’t look at his face, “but at the rise and fall of his chest under the grimy T-shirt. I wondered what his plan was now. Getting through the day, I figured… I guess Tommy’s whole life now was a war wound.”

Nothing much good ever happens for Tom. To be fair, nothing much good happens to his Aunt Ruth either. She is a Gothic character who never leaves her house and keeps a dead baby in a suitcase in her attic. Tom never becomes more than a stereotypical emotionally damaged Vietnam War veteran who never gets his life together. He deals drugs, gets into fights, and serves time in prison. Eventually, he disappears. We never find out where or why.

Few, if any A-list authors at top-line publishers are dealing with Vietnam veterans these days. So I was driven to read this book and find out how it would be done. I could be wrong, but I didn’t get the feeling that Quindlen actually has known any Vietnam veterans personally, let alone had one for a brother or husband or a father. Her characterization of Tommy seems well researched, but not torn from personal relationship or personal pain.

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Bruce Willis as Emmett in In Country, the 1989 movie

Tommy reminded me a lot of Emmett, the main Vietnam veteran character in another novel by a top American female author, Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country. That novel was also well-researched, but is infinitely more worthy than Quindlen’s effort. Perhaps it was the help Mason had from Vietnam veterans she know, including W. D. Ehrhart.

Tommy lacks the positive traits of Emmett. I would have liked to have seen some positive traits. But that is just me being a Vietnam veteran who looks for those things in fellow vets.  And I usually find them, both in real and fictional veterans. That’s because people are usually a mixture.

I had high hopes for Miller’s Valley. I thought we might finally find a fully developed, fully rounded, realistic portrait of a Vietnam veteran. I didn’t find that in this novel—not by a long shot.

—David Willson

Unaccounted by Michael McDonald-Low

Michael McDonald-Low’s Unaccounted (First Edition Design Publishing, 364 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) begins with a startling statistic: More than 83,000 American military personnel—the overwhelming majority from World War II— have been listed as missing in action.  The military did not systematically search for MIAs until after the Vietnam War, the author points out, when the families of those unaccounted for demanded answers.

Unaccounted looks at the service of, and search for, Clifford D. Van Artsdalen, an American soldier who went missing in May 1968 at the beginning of the second Tet Cffensive. Using a unique style of storytelling, the author presents a fictionalized account of the war from Van Artsdalen’s perspective, starting with his first duty station at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and ending with his presumed death in the Que Son Valley. McDonald-Low intersperses this retelling with personal experiences and interactions he had as Van Artsdalen’s platoon leader, along with details gathered from after-action reports.

Convincing reconstructed dialogue and descriptions put the reader firmly in the combat boots of the two main characters in Vietnam. The story starts with McDonald-Low waking in the present, drenched in sweat, from a nightmare that has haunted him for decades—the day when, as a platoon leader with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, he and his men walked into an ambush along the hills of Que Son Valley.

The Author

The events leading up to the ambush are what the author attempts to reconcile through this retelling—could something have happened that would have spared the lives of Van Artsdalen and other men? Was there some crucial detail that he missed?

When Van Artsdalen is shot and goes missing, the book leaps forward to the present, where McDonald-Low is advising a JPAC recovery team searching for Van Artsdalen’s remains. The last third of the book describes the team’s recovery efforts in Hawaii and Vietnam. Without giving too much away, the recovery team is only marginally successful, but its endeavor enables McDonald-Low to confront Van Artsdalen’s death.

Inattentive readers may miss the shift in POV when a new chapter starts, as there’s not much change in tone. Plus, sometimes chapters skip weeks, months, or even years in a non-linear fashion. But overall, McDonald-Low’s book does an excellent job portraying the chaos of battle and the similar thoughts and emotions of officers and enlisted men.

Unaccounted evokes Clifford Van Artsdalen’s war experiences and the ultimate sacrifice he paid—even if it took 44 years for him to be accounted for.

The author’s website is www.unaccounted.net

—James Schuessler

Russell’s Purple Heart by Russell D. Ward

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Russell’s Purple Heart: Memoirs and Musings of Russell D. Ward, Purple Heart Recipient and Patriot (CreateSpace, 210 pp. paper; $4.89, Kindle) delivers exactly what its title offers. Russell D. Ward (with the help of Colleen Fitzgerald McCoy) tells his life story in the first three-quarters of the book. The rest consists of Ward’s explanation of his solutions to a dozen current worldwide problems.

Drafted into the Army in 1966, Russell Ward went to Vietnam the following year as a machine gunner on an armored personnel carrier. After six months, he was reassigned to an infantry company. Shot during the battle for Hue in 1968, Ward was shipped home when his wound did not improve “quickly enough.” Shortly before he was wounded, he recalls that “there were only three of us left of the twelve who started out in my third squad.”

The Vietnam War provided Ward with grisly and long-lasting memories. He describes the mutilation of enemy bodies in detail and wonders “why we had to act like such barbarians.” He talks of the deaths of comrades and the resultant punishment that battle survivors meted out against villages and people suspected of being Viet Cong.

“I have heard that a man is only as good as what he has gone through—that his life experiences form his character,” Ward writes. “This statement makes me believe that we, as veterans of war, who fought for our country, experienced these things for a reason and for some good purpose. At the very least, our experiences have taught us to be tough enough to keep on surviving. No matter what. I know that I have had my heartbreaks, just like everyone. But through all my struggles and heartbreaks, I have believed in myself because of my trust in the Lord to overcome the low points in my life. Vietnam taught me that.”

Early in the book, Ward paints picturesque scenes of growing up in West Buffalo, New York, during the 1950s and early 1960s. He takes pleasure in remembering fist fights with rival neighborhood gangs and pegging the speedometer of his ’58 Chevy. In every way, he enjoyed taking chances.

He returned to Buffalo after the war and found it difficult to cope with the changing social values. He fell back into the habit of taking chances. He experienced business and marital problems, depression, residual pain from his wound, and drug abuse. “My brain,” he says, “was cooked at the age of twenty-seven.”

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Russell Ward at the Williamsville, New York, Purple Heart Monument.

Ward’s emotional burden lightened during his passage through middle age as the result of a successful second marriage and a quarter-century career with the U.S. Postal Service. Following retirement, he found a calling in promoting the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

This book was difficult to read because Ward’s suffering often resulted from his own mistakes, which he admits. He repeatedly fell for get-rich-quick schemes that I found frustrating because of their transparency. Nevertheless, I admire Russell Ward’s ability to restart his life after repeated crashes.

The author’s web site is www.russellpurpleheart.com

—Henry Zeybel