Nothing Left to Lose by Allan G. Johnson

Allan G. Johnson received a PhD in sociology from the University of Michigan in 1972, so I deduce he spent most of the Vietnam War in graduate school. His biography has no mention of military service and he says straight out in an interview that he has never been to Vietnam.

The closest his novel, Nothing Left to Lose (Plain View Press, 295 pp., $18.95, paper) gets to Vietnam is a series of letters home from Joshua Carson, a Marine who dies in Vietnam in mysterious circumstances thirty miles from Khe Sanh, the last place he was seen alive. Readers of the book, as well as his parents and his brother (the main characters in this novel), never learn exactly what happened to Joshua.

As this novel is about the war at home and the antiwar movement, Johnson was in the right place at the right time to experience the gritty details of what it was like for an antiwar demonstrator to be tear-gassed and beaten by the police. Johnson is successful in delineating the character of Joshua’s father, a World War II veteran who is shown to be understanding and sympathetic to his youngest son, who had been a sterling ROTC officer but then became a draft dodger. Of course, Carson’s older son had to die before that was possible.

I found William Carson believable, even though I never met any such father, let alone had one. That is a testament to the skill of Johnson, who has crafted a beautifully written novel filled with believable characters who take believable but brave actions.

Johnson’s conclusion to the novel is set in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and is the best evocation of that scene I have read since Larry Heinemann’s Cooler by the Lake, and Larry was there. Once I read Johnson’s recounting of that debacle, I felt I’d been there, too. I am glad I was not.

The author’s website is

—David Willson