Never Left Behind by Jim Miller

We are told that Jim Miller’s Never Left Behind (RichLife Publishing, 334 pp., $20.99, paper) is a work of fiction. “The characters are either vestiges of my memory or products of my imagination,” Miller says. “My time in Vietnam was too historically unremarkable to bother with.”

He goes on to say that he “came home angry, too. I couldn’t hear the name Jane Fonda without foaming at the mouth.” Miller got home “just before Christmas of nineteen sixty-seven,” which was five years before Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. At that time Fonda was a pin-up in Vietnam due to her film work, especially in Barbarella.

So Miller was foaming too early—and wrongly—when he head Fonda’s name. On the other hand, he seems to have no problem hearing the names Kissinger, Westmoreland, LBJ, or Nixon. Which makes me wonder why he doesn’t put the blame where it belongs, rather than displacing it to Fonda.

After I read the author’s note about Fonda, I had little hope the book would be worth much. However, I plodded onward, hoping that I would be wrong.

The author also says, “It was still early in the national turmoil that the end of the sixties brought, but showing up at my parents’ front door felt like arriving from Mars.”  Many Vietnam veterans shared that experience, including me.

The central character of the book is Edgar Allan Jollar, a Navy SEAL who is left behind through no fault of his shipmates, all of whom died in an attack in which Jollar took two bullets to the head, leaving him near death and with total amnesia. He is nursed back to health by loving Vietnamese people, one of whom becomes his wife.

The novel jumps back and forth in time and takes place on several continents. The book is held together by amazing coincidences of the sort that I last encountered in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. These coincidences are communicated to the reader in prose that varies from workmanlike to cliché ridden.

This reader encountered the cliche “as tough as a two dollar steak” twice. I admit I’d never heard the phrase “as ugly as homemade soap,” but I won’t be using it in my own writing.

Characters say things like, “No speakee gook,” and Asians are often called “Orientals. “Vietnam is referred to as “this shithole.”  Also, “Gook names all sounded the same to Jenkins.” We are also told that “Vietnamese are superstitious people who live in the present.” 

When the characters venture into Vietnam, one of their big fears is that they will be fed pets at dinner. One of their hosts actually makes fun of this fear by serving them a platter of food and making a mewing noise. I laughed at that. 

It’s hard to place some of the dates in the novel, but my interpretation is that Jane Fonda is castigated for going to Vietnam in 1969. The reader learns that Hollywood actors went to Hanoi, “desperately trying to pump up sagging careers.”  Antiwar protestors are characterized as “dirty rabble marching in the streets and singing old songs,” and as “wild-eyed liberal radicals.”

Audie Murphy is mentioned, as is Agent Orange. This book also tries something few attempt, to create a Vietnamese character who is not just a walk-on. Phung Tu is presented to us early as he tries and fails to kill Jollar. The back and forth of the narrative shows us the progression of his life. I didn’t find him to be a sympathetic or believable character, but the author deserves credit for trying.

As the back cover blurb notes: “middle age has found both Tu and Jollar; their lives have settled into a routine that has left the war behind.  But unbeknownst to either man, they [sic] lives would continue to enmesh in ways neither man could fathom.”

For the reader who cannot get enough about the heroism of Navy SEALs, perhaps this book is for you.

—David Willson

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