Ron Lealos did not serve in the military, although he is of the right age to have been a Vietnam veteran. He is the author of a well-reviewed military thriller, Pashtun, which I am likely to read when, as I enjoyed his first novel, Don’t Mean Nothin’ (Skyhorse Publishing, 240 pp., $24.95).
One of the things I enjoyed about this novel is that the main character, Frank Morgan, is a product of the gloomy Pacific Northwest, as I am. Plus, there are frequent allusions to that rainy part of the country throughout this tale. Of course, the drizzle is contrasted to the more aggressive rain that falls in Southeast Asia.
Another aspect that appealed to me is the relationship Frank has with his father, the Colonel. The father blames his lack of a general’s star on his wife, Franks’ mother, a dipsomaniac locked up in a mental hospital in Sedro Wooley, one of my favorite town names in the state of Washington.
Frank’s is a highly trained and efficient assassin working in the Phoenix Program in the Vietnam War. Much detail is given to how Phoenix works. Lealos is especially gifted describing how things smell. I kept six pages of lists of all the lists Lealos has in the book dealing with the nasty smells that permeated South Vietnam during that the American war.
Friends who have traveled to Vietnam in recent years report that the country is sweet-smelling now that the Americans have left. Shit is no longer being burned in barrels. Trash is being picked up, as garbage collectors are no longer quitting their jobs to go to the countryside to help remove foreign interlopers from their lovely land.
This is a densely written book and Lealos has chosen to make a rude poetry of almost constant references to the language and clichés of the Vietnam War. Not the language and clichés that I knew in my thirteen months there, but the argot that has evolved in the books written since the war and splashed over into Vietnam War movies and television shows.
The terms and tropes run the gamut, from the lying recruiter who promises that an enlistee will get a clerk typist job in Vietnam, to the Freedom Bird filled with soldiers eager to return to the land of the Big PX. We also get boom-boom, un-curable clap, whores’ vaginas stocked with rusty razor blades, and a seductive Hanoi Hannah telling GI radio listeners that back home Jody has gotten their girls.
Ham and lima beans get half a page about how unpopular they were as a C-Rat. Western terms such as “saddle up” are there as well, as is virtually every other one that can be conjured up by a writer armed with an endless supply of colorful language.
Our hero has a brief fling with an Irish woman with green eyes who runs an orphanage. But after they make love on a pagan alter in the jungle, bad things happen to her—and to our hero.
Every great thriller needs a roster of evil bad guys for its hero to do battle with, and Lealos has provided a rich assortment of them. They even include Frank Morgan’s fellow Phoenix operatives. Frank and his trusty sidekick, Luong, a small but deadly denizen of the mountains of Vietnam, do battle with the bad people. They often triumph, or at least muddle through.
Carping remarks can always be made about a book like this, written as it is by a non-veteran. But does it really matter that Lealos gets a few minor details wrong or that he says the dirt in one region is red laterite when it was actually black loam? Not to me.
This is a military thriller, not a historical novel. Mostly, Lealos gets the tone right, and he gets the action right. This is a fast-paced adventure novel, with an interesting and troubled hero who holds the attention of the reader looking to escape from the life’s mundane affairs.
I have read all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels and enjoyed all of them. Burroughs got most of the details wrong about life on Mars and life in Africa. He had never been to either place. But he created characters and story that were riveting. Ron Lealos also has that gift.
There’s no higher praise in my book.
The author’s website is www.ronlealosbooks.com