Heart of Gray by Richard W. Enners

 
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Richard W. Enners’ Heart of Gray: Lt. Raymond “Iggy Enners: Courage and Sacrifice of a West Point Graduate in Vietnam (Acclaim Press, 256 pp., $26.95) is a shining tribute to the author’s older brother. The book commemorates a life of honor and achievement, from junior high school to the Vietnam War, where Raymond Enners died. It is clear from the beginning that he was a team player who always left ego behind to make sure his team did well.

Richard Enners tells how early experiences built Ray’s character and led to his leadership abilities. He uses lacrosse and his brother’s expertise in the game as an example of the Ray’s natural-born talents. As a young boy in an important game, for example, Ray had a chance to score a goal but instead passed the ball to a teammate so he could reach a personal milestone. “Ray certainly had the guts, but was not interested in the glory,” his brother writes.

Such leadership carried through to the Vietnam War in which Ray served after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy. His brother—also an Academy graduate—discusses Ray’s life at West Point, from drills to dinner.

Raymond Enners went to Vietnam in 1968 where he used “influence, not authority, to lead his teammates,” Richard Enners writes. 1st Lt. Ray Enners led his unit, Alpha Co., in the Americal Division’s 1/20th Inf. Regiment of the 11th Infantry Brigade with courage and friendship. His men never suffered low morale, thanks primarily to his leadership.

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Richard Enners

Even Ray’s death on September 18, 1968, in a vicious firefight with the NVA near Ha Thanh showed his lack of selfishness, as well as his courage and humanity. He died in a rice paddy as he saved others. For this, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for dedication, bravery, and valor.

Heart of Gray is filled with extraordinary detail from Ray’s entire life. The fight in which Ray fought and died is described so well that the reader can easily envision the action. Even his R&R is chronicled in detail. There also are testimonies from former classmates, war buddies, and friends, all glowing with respect and admiration for Raymond Enners.

—Loana Hoylman

 

 

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Hyperventilated Underwater Blues by Bob Calverley

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Bob Calverley was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1967 and served a 1968-69 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh. His first novel, Purple Sunshine, which we reviewed on these pages, is set in Vietnam and back home. His unusual second novel, Hyperventilated Underwater Blues (Amazon Digital, 338 pp., $4.99, Kindle), is a murder mystery set entirely in the U.S.A. with a few mentions of the military and the Vietnam War.

The book’s hero is a guy named Rick Short. Rick happens to be short, but he is also a swimmer, which makes his height unimportant. The book is a mixture of fantasy and reality and it is difficult to figure where one stops and the other picks up.

This the first book in which I read that a tour in Vietnam could bring back childhood stuttering. At least, I think that was the claim.

“I stuttered when I was a kid, but I mostly got over it until I almost got killed by a rocket in ‘Nam,” a character says. “Killed a guy who was talking to me. Got hit in the head by a big piece of shrapnel when he was right in the middle of a sentence. All I got was a few pieces in my arm. Minor shit, but my stuttering came back. Worse than when I was a kid.”

A teen-aged girl swimmer is murdered, drowned on her 18th birthday. That’s what this book is about. If you are a fan of university swimming, the book will hold more interest for you. Much of the book takes place in or near an aquatic center, and that’s fine with me.

This isn’t the usual Vietnam War-influenced book populated by mosquitoes and leeches. In fact, the book gets nowhere near Vietnam. It’s a nice change of pace. Thanks go to Bob Calverley for that.

The author took up masters swimming when his knees gave out from running cross country, so he appreciates a change of pace. Most of us do.

As someone said, variety is the spice of life.  This book provides that needed variety.

The author’s website is bobcalverley.com

—David Willson

Each One a Hero by Michael March

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Michael March served with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam from July 1967 to July 1968. In his autobiographical Vietnam War novel, Each One a Hero: A Novel of War and Brotherhood (Hellgate Press, 316 pp., $19.95, paper), the main character, a college drop out who gets drafted into the Army, spends time driving an APC just like the main character does in Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters, one of the best early (1977) Vietnam War novels.

Each One A Hero gives no challenge to Close Quarters, but it is a worthy effort. The reader encounters the notion that the VC fight their war by arming whores with razor blades in their vaginas. It also asks the question, “Why don’t they give up?” as they are hopelessly out-manned and outclassed, or so the Americans seem to think. Certainly the results of the U.S. body counts seemed to indicate so.

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Michael March

Ann Margaret, Annette Funicello, the Freedom Bird, Woody Woodpecker, and a lot of the usual American pop culture stuff we find in Vietnam War novels gets name checked in this book. The Tet Offensive and the Light at the End of the Tunnel get a workout, too. Magical realism even rears its head, along with Buddy Knox and his great fifties rock and roll song “Party Doll.”

Each One a Hero is well written and is a quick read. The hero returns from his Bangkok sex-capades with his “dick hurting like a bastard.” He was singing the blues right out of “House of the Rising Sun.” That makes me glad I chose not to take my R&R in Thailand.

There is some humor in this book, but it’s hard to laugh at the hero’s predicament as he prepares to return home. I’m sure he figured it out.

—David Willson

Dragonfish by Vu Tran

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Vu Tran’s first novel, Dragonfish (Norton, 298 pp., $26.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $15.95, Kindle), presents many voices, and every one is interesting. Born in Saigon and raised in Oklahoma, Vu Tran today teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago. He has maintained his Vietnamese heritage despite absorbing Western culture, ethics, and style, particularly regarding crime fiction.

Tran knows noire. He alternates view of cops, crooks, and gamblers in Las Vegas with memories that go back to the days when his characters fled Vietnam following the end of the American war. The drama centers on Robert—an American cop—and his search for Suzy, his Vietnamese wife who left him for Sonny, a Vietnamese tough-guy gambler.

Tran infuses three Vietnamese female characters—a mother, daughter, and a close friend—with enough ambivalence and mystery to more than justify the men’s longing for them. In doing so, he provides a clear picture of refugee life.

At the end of many plot twists, Robert survives physical and psychological battles with Sonny and his henchmen, but pays a heavy toll.

Several times the story’s moods, scenes, and vocabulary flashed me back to the pulp fiction crime magazines I read as a kid. This made Dragonfish an especially enjoyable read.

–Henry Zeybel

 

Focus on Vietnam by Steven Burchik

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Steven Burchik served as a sergeant with D Company of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment in Vietnam in 1968-69. Burchik was a forward observer, not a photographer, but he often had his camera with him. During his tour he took more than four thousand photographs. None of combat, he notes, since that’s when he was using a rifle—not a camera.

Burchik mailed the film to his wife, and didn’t see his prints or slides for the first time until after he returned from Vietnam. “It was an amazing experience to view them and remember the circumstances surrounding each image,” he writes in the introduction to Focus on Vietnam (Sharlin-K Press, 120 pp., $29, paper).

After that memorable experience, Burchik boxed up the photos and rarely looked at them until he was asked in 2013 to make a presentation on the war to a high school English class. Speaking to the class reignited his interest in the Vietnam War, and he wrote and published Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam in 2014, followed by Focus on Vietnam.

You won’t find any Great Photographs in this new volume—no decisive moments, no grand tableaux, no epiphanies, no perfect compositions, no “Oh my God” images. The Vietnam War produced many great photographers—many unheralded—who left a trove of images of the beauty, the horror, the cruelty, and the kindnesses that resulted from America’s involvement in the conflict. Burchik is not one of them.

He took for himself a more prosaic task: depicting the daily life of the combat soldier.

Focus on Vietnam is arranged thematically into short chapters, each with brief introductory notes combined with relevant photos. The chapters reflect the interests of young Americans serving halfway around the world: weapons and transportation, children and villagers, Saigon and stand-downs, wading through rivers and tracking through jungles, pacification and the rice harvest. Burchik, curious and fresh-eyed, kept his camera by his side and recorded the life that passed before him.

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That’s the book’s power: a record of one man’s life as it is swept into a tidal wave of events far beyond his control. Everyone else depicted in his book, both American and Vietnamese, has similarly been swept up by the war. Yet daily life goes on, perhaps having taken on a sort of exotic sheen or at least an awareness that those involved are living history.

Burchik’s book, perhaps, will be best appreciated by those who have served and those who may soon serve. His images are fascinating yet familiar.

The author’s website is stevenburchik.com

–Michael Keating

Forgotten by Marc Liebman

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Marc Liebman received his Navy commission in 1968, and became an aviator the following year. He retired as a Captain after serving for twenty-four years in the Navy. His military career took him all over the world, and included service in the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. During that time he also worked with the armed forces of Australia, Canada, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, and with the British Royal Navy.

His novel, Forgotten (Deeds, 594 pp., $25.57, paper), deals with six men who did not come home when the North Vietnamese returned the American POWs in 1973. The men had never been reported as POWs, but were listed as missing in action. The Vietnamese, in the person of NVA Lt. Col. Pham, use the Americans as laborers in a heroin factory. The colonel’s goal is to keep the men alive and ransom them for millions.

Back in the U.S., Janet, the wife of one of the POWs, is an strident antiwar activist. She fills her waiting time and sexual needs by becoming a highly paid assassin, taking on high-value targets around the world.

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Marc Liebman

Often this book read like a pop culture inventory. Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Sam Peckinpah, The Bridge over the River Kwai, Almond Joy, SDS, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rolex, Carlos Hathcock (the famed Vietnam War sniper) get more than a mention.

This is a giant whopper of a sex thriller with violence and bloodshed on most pages, along with that nymphomanical ex-antiwar activist turned assassin. If you love books like this, it’s the one is for you. It is predictable, however, as I was not surprised when Janet, the hit woman, was contracted to kill her own husband.

Forgotten is well written and held this reader’s attention throughout.

—David Willson

The Last of the Annamese by Tom Glenn

 

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Tom Glenn’s The Last of the Annamese (Naval Institute Press, 336 pp., $29.95) is a love story. It is not a sentimental love story, nor is it a soap opera. It is a clear story of the last days of South Vietnam—a story of the love between individuals and love for a dying country.

The main thread is an affair between an American, Chuck Griffith, and an aristocratic Vietnamese woman, Tuyet, who is married to a disfigured peasant who has the noblest heart of all the characters. But the background story is of the Vietnam War after most of American troops have left. It is about Amerasian children left behind in orphanages, Vietnamese women who do not know what has happened to their husbands, the American troops who try to tell the truth of what is happening. Whether the U.S. government cares about the truth is unclear; are the Americans in charge deaf, or do they wish to disrupt any evacuations?

The novel begins calmly with the meeting of the two protagonists and progresses to fear and panic as South Vietnam begins to unravel. It is the mark of a fine writer that you cannot tell how he does this without changing his style, but the message is undeniably clear: South Vietnam is falling and failing, and people are trying to survive.

Against the panic of being overrun, Glenn conveys the peaceful heart and philosophies of one man, the courageous South Vietnamese Army officer who is married to Tuyet. Thanh evolves into the strongest, most compassionate, dauntless character in the book. Against all odds, he comes to embody the heart of the Buddha in a way that suggests that the people in the South will endure and survive whatever horrors await.

Glenn’s writing is clear and calm and remains so throughout the book. And yet, toward the end, as Saigon is being bombed and people are dying, there is an urgency to everything. The calm of the rest of the book reflects the way people ignored what was really going on. When confronted with bombs, attacks, and the advancing enemy, the urgency and human panic comes through loud and clear.

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Tom Glenn

Every character is painted with only a few strokes with such talent that you know these people, or think you do. And yet, none are clichéd or simple. You can smell the fish sauce, the streets, the flowers, the air. You can feel the black smoke from crashing planes, the humidity of the place, the darkness of the interiors, the whisper of silk ao dais.

You can feel the grief of all that is lost, but it is never a grief too heavy to read. In a Shakespearean way, the heavy emotion is off stage, implied with subtle writing. Glenn describes emotions that his characters go through, but he does so with spare strokes and thorough knowledge. Above all, this beautiful book shows that the trauma of war is the great equalizer for those directly involved.

Tom Glenn spent thirteen years as an undercover NSA employee working on covert operations in Vietnam, and escaped when the North Vietnamese took Saigon in May of 1975.  We reviewed his novels The Trion Syndrome and Friendly Casualties on these pages in 2015 and 2016.

—Loana Hoylman