Syllables of Rain (Rainbow Ridge Books, 152 pp., $16.95, paper) is a poetic novel of pure genius by the novelist and poet D.S. Lliteras. A former Navy combat corpsman with the First Recon Marines in the Vietnam War, Lliteras received a Bronze Star for his courage under fire.
This work surpasses his earlier books that dealt with the Vietnam War: 613 West Jefferson, in which a returning Vietnam veteran tries to make sense of the terrible world he has returned to, and Viet Man, which shows what veterans dealt with while serving in Vietnam. Both are master works. But neither book grapples with the things that Syllables of Rain takes on.
Syllables of Rain should be placed on the book shelf next to Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn as an antidote to giant books that seem to last as long as the war itself did. Syllables of Rain lets the reader know what happened to Marines after the war, experiences weighed down by great sadness—as Matterhorn is burdened with blood, thunder, and death.
Llewellyn and Cookie, the friends at the heart of Syllables of Rain, are easily imagined in the world of Matterhorn and it is easy to imagine them buoyed up by Jansen, a larger-than-life Zen master who influences the rest of their lives. Llewellyn and Cookie had intersected years before, but their lives were ordained by fate to become intertwined yet again. They stand, confronting each other on a street in Baltimore, face to face with their mortality and with assessing what their lives have measured up to.
Will they have a future with the women they love? Will they come to terms with their shared past and go on to deal successfully with their war and their emotions? They and we can only hope. Some of us will even pray that they will. Llewellyn asks the question, “Is it wrong to be lost?”
My favorite kind of Vietnam War book is short, poetical, and filled with hard-fought truths. Every page would be purest poetry, quarried from the marble of experience. This is that book. D. S. Lliteras brings his unique genius to bear on the world of the Vietnam War veteran, sometimes homeless, often heartsick from love lost.
Viet Man is a gritty in-country novel; Syllables of Rain is the poetic novel of a lifetime of coping with war, of struggling “to make peace with Vietnam” with the war that “separated us from everybody else.”
I’d thought that D. S. Lliteras’ previous book, Viet Man, was un-toppable, but I was dead wrong.