VVA member William Simon enlisted in the Army in November 1965. After four months of training, he received orders to report to an artillery unit near Pleiku “I was barely eighteen,” he writes in the introduction to his novel Three Sixty Five (CreateSpace, 342 pp., $13.99). Much of the book is based on his experiences and those of other Vietnam veterans.
The book, Simon says, “is fictional… It is a story of men, young men, and what men will do to retain sanity when everything around them borders on absurdity.”
The novel opens on Friday, May, 3, 1966, in a chapter titled “Loss of Innocence.” This is that rare Vietnam War novel (or memoir) not written in chronological order. It appears that the book starts thirty days into Simon’s tour so that he can jump start this action-packed novel right at the very beginning. And it works. After exciting scenes in the whorehouses of Pleiku and some hot and heavy fighting, the book goes back in time and lets us in on the first thirty days. I enjoyed this nifty authorial trick.
A scene of Simon and his buddies as trash truck guards at an Army garbage dump near Pleiku illustrates the above-mentioned absurdity to an extreme. Simon asks, “Why the fuck don’t we toss out Ky? Why the hell doesn’t the brass do something to feed those people?” Good questions from a teenager from Chicago who has never eaten in a restaurant fancier than White Castle.
Simon spent a lot of time stringing commo wire, pulling guard duty, burning shit, and filling sandbags. Simon and his little crew get volunteered to string wire hither and yon in “shitty and dangerous assignments” that result in much bloody action. Simon (the author) does a great job of getting us to appreciate the members of Simon (the character’s) team, so when they die or are shipped back home, we miss them. They are brilliantly individualized. Coleman, the main African American in the book, comes so alive that I wish he had his own book.
Setting up commo wire at new fire bases is the source of the bloodiest action in the book. That action is convincingly communicated and had this reader on the edge of his seat. Against all evidence, I became convinced that William Simon, the character, was not going to get out of Vietnam alive. There is a long and scary section about amateur explosive demolition work that leads to the deaths of several soldiers and to the transfer of their colonel.
This book has many other delights. The language Simon uses is superb. A sergeant, for example, tells his men, “The only sound I want to hear is the moonlight hitting the ground.” This comes from a failed West Pointer who starts off rocky with the wire stringing men, but who is “a fast learner.” Lucky for him.
We also get the obligatory stateside accusations of “baby killer.” But this happens to Simon when he is on R&R in Hawaii. Ham and limas get a negative name check, and Simon gets six cans of Spam as a Christmas present from his parents, a present he actually appreciates. Simon’s philosophical musings are also a delight and never slow down the action.
Three Sixty Five has the best and sexiest recounting of Bob Hope’s Christmas Show that I have read. The Christmas section of this novel is worth the price of the book alone. The section where Roy Rogers and Archie Moore, the great boxer, visit Simon’s unit to entertain the troops is very moving. The scene between Archie Moore and Coleman is a wonder in how it plays out.
Simon dedicates this novel to his wife, his sons and daughters, and his dog Lulu. Those are the only clues in the book as to what Simon did with his life after serving in Vietnam, but indications are that he has lived a good life.
I am glad that he lived such a life and that he was able to give us this fine novel. I thank him.