Brain Francis Heffron’s novel, Colorado Mandala (Little House Books, 254 pp., $14.95, paper), is a classy looking book with a cover featuring a detail from a painting by William Keith of a wild mountain canyon with a distant river. It sets the tone for the book.
The relationship of Michael, Paul and Sarah provides the framework of this novel in the wild setting of the Colorado Rockies. The war in Vietnam has just wound down and an era of peace has been arrived. A concept called free love is in the air.
I didn’t live in Colorado in the 1970s but I knew people who did, and some of them fit the characters Heffron presents. Michael is not a recent veteran of the Vietnam War, but is filled with a rage that often comes out in violence and is fueled by a large alcohol consumption and cocaine use. Michael and Paul are partners in a gem business. Paul is the talent behind the production of the finished gems. Michael has a salesman’s charm when it suits him. Lithe, green-eyed Sarah supports herself and her ten-year-old son, Stuart, by producing batik dyed apparel.
The author tells us that Michael was in the Special Services, but later it is made clear he meant Special Forces, AKA the Green Berets. The text implies that Paul is himself a military veteran but does not make it clear what kind. The author says that it was unpopular for a young man to become a Green Beret. The way I remember it, Green Berets were American icons celebrated in hit songs and movies.
In the pivotal chapter of the novel Paul discovers the Vietnam War journal written by Michael in Japan, which contains the secret of his rage. This is not a thriller or a spy novel, but a love story, so I will provide this spoiler. Michael was a Special Forces Captain in Vietnam way out in the boonies where he was co-leader of an A team of Montagnards. The other leader, Stuart, was also a captain.
The journal tells us that Stuart went off his nut and started shooting the Montagnards, who Michael calls “Indians.” I had not encountered a Special Forces Team that did not have a sergeant on it. Two captains? New to me.
I was bothered often while reading this lyrical novel by the tone and language relating particularly to military matters, especially to all things Special Forces.
For example, when Michael gives a reference to distance he uses miles, not klicks as the SF men did. The way Michael refers to himself in the journal as an officer, rather than as a captain, set my teeth on edge. Michael says that he and Stuart Drummond had commanded the unit for two and one half years. I’d need more details to believe that. He mentions setting up Claymores and widow makers. I know what claymores are, but what are widow makers?
We are expected to believe that Michael went back to the states, found Sarah, and got involved with her as a lover, but he has never told her that he is the one who shot and killed her husband, Captain Stuart Drummond.
The three adults in this novel, who all love and care about the ten-year-old, decide it is okay for Paul and Michael to take him on an expedition deep into a cave. At that point, I could no longer suspend my disbelief. This plot device is not believable, even in the context of the irresponsible 1970’s. All three adults would never think this was a grand idea, especially the very protective widow, Sarah. Of course, the boy has an asthma attack deep in the cave, and has to be rescued by Paul with spectacular derring-do involving swimming out of the cave via an underground river.
There’s lots of plot left in the novel. It involves a Rocky Mountain High festival and a cockfight, as well as a fight between Paul and Michael.
I recommend this book to all who wish to revisit the 1970’s, with a heavy dose of the Vietnam War Syndrome as an evil that permeates the souls of those of us who served in that war.
As for the cryptic title, “mandala” refers to the shape and form of the bun into which emerald-eyed Sarah chooses to twist her blonde hair.