Michael P. Maurer enlisted in the Army and served as an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division in the Vietnam War. Maurer moved to Vietnam in 2003. He stayed there until 2009. He took more than twelve years to complete his novel, Perfume River Nights (North Star Press, 329 pp., $14.95, paper), most of which was written in Vietnam.
The novel’s main character, Jimmy Miller, called Singer by his platoon mates, is the same age, 18, as Maurer was when he served in Vietnam. I don’t think that is the only similarity between the author and the protagonist.
As the novel’s title indicates, some of the story takes place in Hue (the Perfume River runs through it), after most of the fighting is over during Tet 1968 and the city is destroyed. Later, the novel moves to the A Shau Valley, where the scenes are cloaked in great darkness due to the dense forest overhead. The platoon stumbles into an enemy base camp in the Valley and dire things ensue, all of which are well described and had me on the edge of my seat.
That includes bad leadership, which is decried often in this book. Fragging is suggested more than once. “Inept leaders and stupid orders” dog the platoon throughout. Their lieutenant tries to pick up a booby trap and blows himself and others up. At one point a character says he’d kill for a glass of water. Bees attack them. Our hero receives a Dear John letter. His letters to his mom are lies that tell her he is in a base camp watching a lot of old movies.
Our hero is angry all the time. After seven months, Miller refuses to shoot his rifle anymore. His Top Sergeant and the new Captain send him to Camp Eagle where he’ll “finish out [his] tour with the company support elements.”
We get many of the same motifs in this novel that are in the the hundreds of in-country fictional works that preceded it, but the writing is much better than in most infantry novels.
We hear “It don’t mean nothing;” we get the phrase, “the things they carried,” as well as rants against REMFs (“fuckin’ pogues”), shit-burning details, shake and bake leaders, chickenshit deferments, clerks with nervous fingers, friendly fire, and cowboys and Indians.
Near the end we are told that there is no glory in killing, but the novel already made that more than clear to this reader.
Perfume River Nights is a superb novel of the American infantry in Vietnam, and I highly recommend it. If I were still teaching a class on the war, I’d use this novel as a text and the class would learn a lot from it.
I rank Perfume River Nights right up there with Marlantes’ Matterhorn, even though Matterhorn is at least twice the size.
The author’s website is www.michaelpmaurer.com