Nam by Robert McGowan

I started reading  Robert McGowan ‘s collection of short stories,  Nam:  Things That Weren’t True and Other Stories, Some Funny, Some Sad  (Meridian Star Press, 217 pp., $15.95, paper), in the Seattle VA Hospital where I was sitting in the waiting room before receiving a CT scan to determine if I had tumors in my right lung. I continued reading the stories while I waited for my bone marrow biopsy appointment.

I was only twenty-four pages in when I encountered “Vera,” McGowan’s story about a veteran who died, slowly, from multiple myeloma, the cancer I am slowly dying from. This two-page short story hit me like a punch in the guts. The shock of recognition bowled me over.Then my doctor called me in for the bone marrow biopsy. I found myself thinking of the story often during the hour-and-a-half procedure.

McGowan’s stories will burrow into the brains of readers because of his writer’s gift of being able to fully inhabit, and give life to, the wide variety of voices needed to present the myriad aspects of the American war in Southeast Asia. Some stories brought me to tears. A couple of others provoked me to laugh aloud and call them to the attention of my wife, who read them and loved them.

Some of the stories are tour de forces of language (“Worse Feeling There Is”) and others are informed by a mystery I love but cannot quite put my finger on. The best Greatest Generation story I’ve ever read is “Goddamn Communists.” In fewer than four pages, McGowan presents his readers with every complex aspect of that generation that has troubled and puzzled me all my life. What is up with them?

Thanks to Robert McGowan for this dazzling, harsh, funny, and truthful book. I am glad that I survived my war long enough to be blessed by getting to read the stories in Nam.

If you are curious about the Vietnam War and intend to read only one book about that war, start here. There is more truth in this fiction collection than in all the decades-later, invented, dialogue-driven mass market paperbacks published by LURPs, Rangers, Green Berets, and Marines added together and stacked a mile high.

—David Willson