There is no biographical information in Red, White & Blues by L. V. Sage (Outskirts Press, 760 pp., $24.95, paper) on the author except for the fact that she lives in Southern California. The novel’s cover blurb tells us that it is about “America & the Vietnam War, free love & drug use, and the brotherhood of an outlaw motorcycle club.” Sage also tell us that she has “great respect” for “the Ojibwe People and all those who served in the Vietnam War.”
This is a giant of a novel, the size of books that Thomas Wolfe wrote. Modern life dictates that novels of this length are seldom written and even more seldom read or finished.
The story begins in 1964. It goes on for thirteen chapters until it ends with a chapter entitled “1977.” The novel thoroughly immerses us in the hippie scene of free love and abundant drug use in San Francisco and full tribute is paid to the music of the time. I could almost hear Jimi and Janis coming out of the pages.
Woven throughout is the Vietnam War and the outlaw biker brotherhood. First, we are introduced to the young men and the women who love them, and then the men are drafted or join the Marines.
There is a strong back-and-forth movement between Vietnam and The World to show us what the women left behind are doing. Mostly they are smoking dope, having sex, and raising vegetables on farms out in the country. There is much talk of groovy everything: vibes, cosmic energy, the Karmic Wheel of Life, Tarot cards, and every other sort of 1960’s bullshit—all of it delivered pitch perfect by the author who truly knows that scene from the inside out, as do I from my own immersion in it.
While their women (or “ladies” in sixties parlance) are doing the aforementioned, the men are being shot to shit in Vietnam. One of the characters is stationed in the rear for a while, then gets sent out into the bush.
Much of the Vietnam War action is believably portrayed, but some false notes are struck. I strongly suspect that the author did not serve in the military in Vietnam.
On the other hand, Sage presents a great wealth of strong, well-portrayed woman characters in this book. More than once a female character says that women are the stronger sex.
The few small things that Sage gets wrong about the Vietnam War are the things I’ve seen many times over the years that seem to be beyond the understanding of folks without military experience. One is the author’s confusion about who is called “sir” and who is not. Sergeants are not called “sir.” Sergeants in my experience in the Army took umbrage at being called sir, and would say, “Don’t call me ‘sir,’ I work for a living.” Sometimes in the context of the rigid hierarchy of training camp sergeants were called “sir,” but not in Vietnam, not in my experience. Also: A lieutenant would not have been accused of throwing his stripes around. Not in the Vietnam War I took part in.
Sage asks us to “Please excuse any mistakes that were made, they were not intentional.” I don’t excuse, but I do forgive the mistakes. I hope the author forgives my nit-picking. When this author completes her next book, I would be honored to read it with an eye to alerting her to such mistakes.
Make no mistake about it, this unsung book is a giant accomplishment. L.V. Sage brings to life a huge multiracial cast of characters who are skillfully individualized. Also, the Zeitgeist of the time is fully captured.
We get a huge, living tableau of realistic, flesh-and-blood characters whom this reader grew to know, love, root for, and feel terrible about when they were wounded, bled, and died. The author presents us with lives in America that are rarely seen in serious fiction, and these lives are portrayed in an evenhanded, non-judgmental, non-sensational manner.
I was sorry when the book ended, even though the weight of it made my arms ache. The high quality of the printing. editing, and typography made it a pleasure to read. Usually my destroyed eyes require the use of a lighted magnifier to read any book, but I was able to read this one unaided, which was also a pleasure.
I could nitpick further about some of the details of how Vietnam War arcana were presented, such as “Puff,” and “Spooky,” but will leave that for other critics.
However, I can’t let alone the claim that “In January, President Jimmy Carter had granted an unconditional pardon to Vietnam draft dodgers and deserters.” Deserters were not pardoned. Many of the deserters had already served some time in Vietnam and did not want to go back, often for valid reasons. But Carter ignored them and only pardoned men who had dodged the draft by not registering or by fleeing the country, mainly to Canada.
This huge book gives attention to most of the usual Vietnam War concerns we see in novels and memoirs. That includes John Wayne, ham and mothers, R&R, REMF’s, and baby killers, as well as the oft-used phrases: “There it is” and “Don’t mean nuthin’.”
As the author says about a Fourth of July celebration (but which applies to every page of this book): “All in all, a good mix to keep things lively and interesting.”
I highly recommend this book to readers in search of a book that extols and makes believable the healing force of being a member of an outlaw biker club. I look forward eagerly to the 800-page sequel that the author promises us.
The author’s blog is http://lvsage.com/?tag=red-white-blues