The in-country Vietnam War novel written by a veteran of that conflict has been an all-but-disappearing species in recent years. Two and three decades ago, war novels by Vietnam veterans came streaming out of word processors. Today, there are precious few in-country novels amid a seemingly endless avalanche of Vietnam War memoirs.
Which brings us to Singing to the Lions (Margaret Media, 300 pp., $14.95), a well-told work of Vietnam War fiction by Robert Gisclair, who served a tour of duty in 1968-69 as a forward observer with the 101st Airborne’s 501st Infantry Regiment. Bobby Gisclair came home from Vietnam, went to college, traveled the world, and then went to work for more than three decades in the oil fields and offshore platforms in southeastern Louisiana where he lives. Singing to the Lions is his first novel. And it is a good one.
The novel begins in triple-canopy jungle as a squad of grunts, on patrol, faces intense Vietnam War-style physical and emotional challenges. The main character is White, an everyman (“he had been average in everything”) who goes through the ultimate young man’s rite of passage as he puts in an eventful tour of duty. Gisclair does a fine job evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of the infantryman’s life in the jungle at the war’s height, as well as White’s psychic evolution from nervous replacement to seasoned grunt.
White “walked on like an automaton,” Gisclair writes early in the novel, “his eyes locked on [a fellow grunt’s] back. The pain was gone from his body and he was no longer tired. But now he felt a new qualm of nothingness, as if nothing he or anyone else could do would mean or change anything. His existence, and the existence of everything else, was meaningless, an empty void.
“For a moment he wondered if he was going mad, but then realized—it wasn’t madness. It was reality. And when he fully understood it, he wished he would go mad.”
It gives nothing away to say that White does not go mad. But he does face plenty of madness before the novel ends.