John Mort served with the First Cavalry Division as a point man and RTO in Vietnam in 1969-70. Five of the dozen stories in his latest book, Don’t Mean Nothin: Vietnam War Stories (Stockton Lake, 246 pp., $11.95, paper) previously appeared in his book TANKS. Three of them appeared in The Walnut King. No evidence is provided that the two stories, “A Man’s World” or “Where They Have to Take You In,” were previously published.
I enjoyed all the stories, most of which I’d read in Mort’s earlier books as I’m a big John Mort fan and have been since I encountered TANKS, which was published in 1985. In this collection, I most enjoyed Mort’s Afterword, “My Vietnam,” a twenty-plus page essay all but buried at the end of the book.
The essay starts with a great sentence that I identify with: “I wrote about half of these stories in the mid-1980’s, during a period when my dad died, my marriage ended, and I was hounded out of a job.” As a matter of fact, my father died and a marriage ended then, too. I was not hounded out of my job until 2000. Maybe my skin is thicker than Mort’s. Or maybe the hounds were bigger and had sharper teeth where he was working.
I loved Mort’s stories of that period so much that I tried to locate Mort so I could call him and talk to him about them. I remember finding his work phone number and calling and being told in a snotty tone that he no longer worked there. Sad stuff. But for me, John Mort had attained that tiny sweet spot of publishing a work of excellent Vietnam War fiction.
Mort advises the reader that he pulled together the best of his stories for this volume and carefully revised them, intending to improve them. I dug out my collection of John Mort books (I have them all) and painstakingly made comparisons. It pleases me to say that his stories were great to begin with and they are served up even better in this handsome collection.
The second part of the fascinating “My Vietnam” essay gives the nonfiction background to Mort’s stories. They are dark, powerful stories. Mort wanted to be a writer, which he sees as an explanation for his participation in the Vietnam War.
“It was a bad war,” he says, “but it was the biggest story of my generation.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Note should be taken of Mort’s title. He chooses to pay homage with the title to Susan O’Neill’s classic 2001 collection, Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam, which is based on O’Neill’s tour of duty as an Army nurse. Of course, titles cannot be copyrighted and Mort does remove the final “n” from “nothing” so O’Neill and Mort have slightly different titles.
I enjoyed Mort’s reference to Fort Lewis, the chilly air, and the fun of buying a six pack of Olympia beer in Roy, Washington, near Fort Lewis, to drink with his buddies when he was supposed to be suffering on a night field exercise. That’s how Mort showed his mastery of “escape and evasion.” He nailed the Pacific Northwest in that story.
Later he says, “it seemed no one cared about us.” He’s right. Those who were cared about (Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, Bill Clinton, et al.) were at home or in Europe. That was no accident. Those of us in Vietnam were cannon fodder to one degree or another. ”It’ll make a man out of you,” I was told by my old Boy Scout Master who had never served in the military.
Mort writes about shit-burning detail, a chore he, “almost grew to like,” he says. I agree. I liked it for the same reasons he did. You could take your time and nobody pestered you while you stirred the burning excrement. It gave you time to contemplate the Human Condition.
“Vietnam vets were all but criminalized in the public imagination, fed by the media.” Mort says a mouthful here. I remember countless episodes of the TV show “Streets San Francisco,” in which the plots were driven by the pursuit of yet one more crazy Vietnam War veteran, with cops played by Michael Douglas, who was the right age for Vietnam, and his mentor Karl Malden, who was not.
“A Man’s World” is a great story of a woman in Vietnam, a Red Cross worker—Arlene, a pretty girl. That might be my favorite story of the bunch. But it’s hard to pick.
An interesting and compelling undercurrent of religion runs through many of these stories. That undercurrent is expressed most forcefully in “Called of God,” and “Where They Have to Take You In.” These are great, dark stories.
I was pleased that the famed C-rat, ham and limas, got name-checked in this book. Mort’s reference to them made me laugh out loud. His character said they tasted just like a dish his mom used to make. Mine, too. That’s no compliment to my mom.
Mort got “a deep appreciation for simple pleasures” from his time at war. He’s a wise man, a philosophical one, and a fine short story writer. Buy and read his dozen stories. You’ll be using your time and money wisely.