Bob Staranowicz served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. He is also a graduate of LaSalle University. His novel, Chapter One: The Story of Vic Charles (Create Space, 337 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper), follows the hero, Vic Charles, a Vietnam War veteran and author battling writer’s block, as he tries to write a follow-up novel to a big, best-selling one that has made him very famous.
Charles’s story is told in alternating sections, from the current day to his past, including his tour of duty in Vietnam via flashbacks, dreams, and flash forwards. The novel is almost as challenging to read as James Joyce’s Ulysses, but for different reasons and with different rewards.
Staranowicz has written a novel in which there is an interesting story or two buried, but the editing and proofreading are so bad—and the writing so inept and cliché ridden—that the story is extremely difficult to follow. To add to these problems, the print is tiny (I had to read it with a magnifying glass), and the margins almost non-existent.
Vic Charles has made it home from his tour of duty, but his mind keeps flashing back to Vietnam. The reader is asked to believe that he wrote a best-selling novel from which he has greatly benefited financially. But Vic Charles is bogged down while trying to write the first chapter (“Chapter One”) of his second novel.
This reader cannot believe that Mr. Charles produced a well-reviewed, best-selling novel, or even a readable one. Which makes the main character not believable or involving. Neither is his wife, Molly, who mainly spends her time shopping.
Our hero, his wife, and their two sons go on a cruise, and we are asked to believe that he is so famous that other passengers recognize his name and even have copies of his novel along on the cruise. Credulity is tested beyond the maximum by this. I suspect that Karl Marlantes, the author of best-selling Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, could go on a cruise with his wife and kids and nobody would bat an eye, let alone ask him for his autograph.
Two Vietnam veterans on the cruise spend a lot of time with Vic, telling him of their experiences. These interviews help get him beyond writer’s block. I’ve never been on a cruise because I think it would be too boring, but if a cruise is as boring as reading about it is in this novel, I cannot understand why anyone bothers.
This book perpetuates myths such as the one about it being common for returning Vietnam veterans to be spat upon, and the one that the United States did no aerial bombing of Vietnam. Rudimentary research indicates that the U. S. dropped 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during our war in Southeast Asia. Yet Vic says that if only we’d bombed “the north of Vietnam…it would have brought an early end and victory to the war.”
The myth that all draftees ended up as 11-Bravos, infantry, is another one that the author puts forward. I know personally that this is a myth, as I was drafted and ended up with a cushy assignment as a typist in the Inspector General’s Office near Saigon.
Vic Charles was trained in electronics and promised by his recruiter that he probably wouldn’t serve in Vietnam, but he does end up there, serving in a Signal Group in Northern I Corps. He manages to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and receives a bullet in his brain. That fact is less of a spoiler than you might think.
As I said, there is a story or two in this book, and I believe that Bob Staranowicz has gifts as a storyteller, but not as a writer. I made a list of the clichés he used in the book, but in the interest of sanity, will only list a couple of them: “rats as big as Dobermans,” and “Molly was not one for dredging up the past, but she supported me whole hog…”
The author is responsible and has his heart in the right place, which the considerable coverage of Agent Orange and PTSD in this novel proves. I read every page of the book, and admit that like Ulysses, it got easier to follow after the first hundred pages or so. If you want a challenge in the genre of Vietnam War fiction, I recommend that you take on Chapter One.