On the back cover of Love Beneath the Napalm (University of Notre Dame Press, 200 pp., $24), a beautifully designed short story collection by James D. Redwood, we are informed that the author “taught English in South Vietnam from 1972-1974 and returned briefly before the fall of Saigon in April 1975.”
This raises more questions than it answers. Such as: For whom and to whom was he teaching English?
I spent thirteen-and-a-half months in South Vietnam when I was the same age as Redwood when he was there (23-24). But I didn’t get any opportunities to teach English. I’d love to know how Redwood (who came to Vietnam with a B.A. in English) ended up with that gig and why. No information is given on his military service, so I immediately started thinking he must have had CIA connections.
Redwood offers up a group of modern stories that build mildly and gradually toward action, but often stop right before something happens, leaving this reader to wonder: So what did Pham do then; did he try to kill Nikolai? We’ll never know.
That frustrated me. I guess I am more of a fan of the sort of stories written by O. Henry, Raymond Carver, and Martin Limon.
We get a history of many of Vietnam’s wars spread throughout these stories, but in no particular order—wars fought to rid the country of invaders, including the Chinese, the French and, of course, the Americans. A couple of the stories are set in the 1890s and make the point that the Vietnamese would do anything to get out from under the rule of outsiders, in this case the French, who had turned thousands of them into coolies on chain gangs. They’d commit murder, acts of terrorism, whatever it took. Throughout these stories, the resolve of the Vietnamese is emphasized.
As a Vietnam veteran, I was especially sensitive to how American veterans are portrayed in these involved, literary stories. Vietnam veterans appear in prominent roles in two stories: in “The Stamp Collector,” a sort of a Grenada War story, in which we hear on the news, “America has kicked the Vietnam Syndrome at last.” It is set in Glendale, California, and presents a Vietnam veteran who is stinky, unhappy, and clad in “a tattered U. S. Army jacket.” He seeks a translator for a letter he looted from the dead body of an enemy.
The other Vietnam veteran appears in the last story in the collection, “The Summer Associate.” Griswold is a Special Forces veteran, having served four years in Thailand and South Vietnam. He’s another Vietnam vet who remains mentally stuck in Vietnam. Griswold wears a pin-striped suit and is a San Francisco attorney, but he lives alone in a basement apartment in the city.
He insists on an office in the law firm without windows. When he needs someone to talk to, he seeks out a Vietnamese bar girl in a dive in Chinatown. You get the idea.
If you’re looking for a serious and downbeat short story collection—and one that sent me to a dictionary often to look up exotic words such as jambu, seladang, crenelated, balau, pusillanimity, and tenterhooks— a Vietnam War story collection unlike all others, Love Beneath the Napalm will suit your needs.
The author’s website is www.jamesdredwood.com