Chances Are… by Richard Russo

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Richard Russo, a Vietnam War generation (he turned 70 last summer) literary lion, is best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, and for Nobody’s Fool, both of which became HBO miniseries. I thought those books were great, but my favorite Russo novel is Straight Man (1997), a funny, cleverly written tale told in the voice of an English professor at a small state college in Pennsylvania as he roars through a mid-life crisis from hell.

It appeared that Russo’s latest novel, Chances Are… (Knopf, 305 pp., $26.95), which came out in July last year, had a strong Vietnam War theme. For one thing, Russo dedicated the book to “those whose names are on the wall” (more on that later). Also: The plot follows three Baby Boomer college buddies from the time they watch the first draft lottery in December 1969, to sometime in the recent past when they’re 66 years old and have a reunion in Martha’s Vineyard.

The draft and what the guys did about it pops up intermittently. Mickey, the rock musician, gets a low number, and is drafted. Teddy, the sensitive guy who suffers from “spells” (whatever that is), gets a get-out-of-jail-free high number. Lincoln, the one carrying heavy dominating-father baggage, is in between. Russo tells us what happens to Mickey and Lincoln vis-à-vis the draft, and offers a line here and there about the war, but that’s about it for the book’s Vietnam War component.

We have yet to see a great literary treatment of “The Sixties,” and I had hoped Russo might come through in this book. But there is no Sixties literary magic here. With only a hint of the wit, great wordplay, and creative story-telling in his best fiction, Russo offers up a tepid tale of four decades of three nothing-burger guys dealing with family, female, financial, health, and mental problems. Are you yawning yet?

Russo embeds a mystery into the tale: what became of Jacy, a wild young woman who palled around with the three buddies, all of whom were, as one says, “head over heels in love” with her. However, none of the guys—well, no plot spoilers here. After learning about Jacy’s horrid home life and the slings and arrows of her engagement to a bland preppie, we wade through a giant red herring until all is revealed in the end.

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Richard Russo

Most of the critics liked the book. The main negative was that the female characters were shallowly developed. Not one review I read mentioned Russo’s almost constant use of clichés. We get Jacy, for example, not being able to “get the hang of it,” then “burst into tears.” Later, she “cried her heart out” after putting her fiancé on “an emotional roller coaster.” And then there’s Lincoln’s father looking “hale and hearty” and “full of his usual piss and vinegar.”

Russo, it appears, failed to heed that tried-and-true literary advice: Avoid clichés like the plague.

As for the dedication—to “those whose names are on the wall”—I kept waiting for its meaning to reveal itself. Finally, near the end, Mickey tells his buddies about the time he paid a visit to The Wall where he scanned “down the rows of names, section after section,” and realized he was “looking for the guy who died in my place.

–Marc Leepson

Up-Close & Personal By Robert C. Bogison

71fyhgjx9llUp-Close & Personal: In-Country, Chieu Hoi, Vietnam 1969-1970 (415 pp. $17.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a gritty memoir, a very personal account of what the Vietnam War was like for Robert C. Bogison.

To me, the purpose of the book is to document the unique role of the 720th Military Police Battalion, or the “Bushwackers” as they were known in Vietnam. Bogison enlisted in the Army in 1968, went to MP school, and was assigned to the Bushwackers in Vietnam in July 1969. This unit performed many of the ambush and reconnaissance duties of infantry troops and their contributions have never been recognized. His company, Bogison says, was the only combat infantry company in the history of the U.S. Military Police Corps.

Bogison, a retired Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective and life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, is an excellent storyteller. I found his descriptions of firefights and friendly fire incidents very vivid and real. He especially shows how difficult living conditions were in the wet, muddy, insect-infected Mekong Delta.

One memorable incidence Bogison describes in great detail began when his squad retrieved the remains of GIs killed on the Mekong River after a helicopter crash. The MPs ignored orders and stayed on their boat as they figured out how to fish the bodies from the river. When they finally achieved their objective, Bogison and company were threatened with courts martial for disobeying orders and were told they were going to the stockade for 99+1 years. This ended up never happening.

Aside from stories about the horrors, pain, and discomfort experienced in Vietnam, Bogison recounts several humorous incidents. For example: He describes a rash he had on his arms not caused by jungle rot; it came from putting his ammo bandoleers on backwards. He also tells of losing a bet dealing with whether or not his unit came upon pink elephants. They did—the pachyderms had rolled around in red clay.

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Robert Bogison

Then there was the time his squad was attacked by stone-throwing apes throwing who were unhappy because the men disturbed their sleep. They also developed a method to ride surfboards between waves created by their river boats’ wakes.

What is remarkable to me is how fifty-plus years later Bagison could write such a detailed and moving account of his tour in the Vietnam War.

I recommend it to anyone who wants an accurate account of what it was like to serve in an MP unit in the trenches in the Vietnam War.

–Mark S. Miller

The Campaign to Impeach Justice William O. Douglas by Joshua E. Kastenberg

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One of the most powerful politicians in the United States. One with a sordid personal life replete with multiple marriages and affairs and questionable financial dealings. One who regularly violated the norms and mores of his office with his outspokenness. One abhorred by his critics, but loved by his followers. One brought before the House of Representatives in a strictly partisan manner on impeachment charges.

Donald Trump? No—in this case, it’s the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. And the impeachment attempt came in 1970 during the Vietnam War.

Joshua Kastenberg, a retired Air Force officer and professor of law at the University of New Mexico, explores the 1970 Justice Douglas impeachment attempt in The Campaign to Impeach Justice William O. Douglas: Nixon, Vietnam, and the Conservative Attack on Judicial Independence (University Press of Kansas, 336 pp., $42.50, hardcover and e book). This well-researched and accessible book is the first in-depth account of this episode. In it, Kastenberg proffers a timely reflection on the political and constitutional implications of impeachment.

In the spring of 1970, Michigan Republican Rep. Gerald Ford, at the behest of the Nixon White House, called an impeachment investigation into Justice Douglas based on allegations of financial impropriety, the undermining of national security, and violations of judicial ethics. The House embarked on a six-month investigation that ultimately cleared Douglas.

A vote was never taken, and the proceedings never captured the public’s imagination. Tepid news coverage faulted Douglas for undermining his credibility, but also criticized Ford and Nixon for an unnecessarily malicious attack on his the justice’s integrity.

Kastenberg expertly details the players, the alliances, and the political machinations that compromised these events. In 1969, at risk of impeachment due to his financial ties to a dubious foundation, Douglas protégé Justice Abe Fortas resigned from the Court. The Senate rejected two Nixon picks to fill the Fortas seat, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harold Carswell, both Southerners with troubling Civil Rights records. Conservatives in Congress turned their enmity to a Douglas, a liberal, unconventional, and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War whom they had previously threatened with impeachment three times.

Kastenberg’s thesis rests on the context of the impeachment allegation. Two weeks after Ford’s allegations, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops moved into neutral Cambodia, sparking outage and protests. Kastenberg posits that the Douglas impeachment was meant to be a public distraction from the invasion. If the incursion went poorly, Douglas would be an ideal scapegoat. Further, Kastenberg writes that Ford’s allegations were a “threat to the efficacy of the nation’s constitutional institutions,” mainly the sanctity of judicial independence.

But Kastenberg does not adequately proved a direct link existed between the impeachment and the Cambodian incursion. He also describes the other reasons for the impeachment as nefarious, but they may be best categorized as politically distasteful: conservatives’ abhorrence of Douglas, a desire to reverse the changes of the Warren Court, and a need to protect Nixon’s policies.

Kastenberg does show that Douglas was in many ways his own worst enemy, providing his opponents with multiple reasons to impugn him. The Constitution does not explicitly state that federal judges serve for life, but that “they shall hold their offices during good Behavior.” While Ford was incorrect when he stated that impeachment is solely a political—not constitutional—process, the two are not, as Alexander Hamilton pointed out, mutually exclusive.

Impeachment is the only mechanism in which the powerful can be held to account. Kastenberg misses the irony that Douglas, at times contemptuous of stare decisis, relied on the history and rarity of judicial impeachment as his primary defense.

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Prof. Kastenberg

In the end, Kastenberg’s charges of Ford and Nixon endangering constitutional institutions and American democracy itself are hyperbolic because the system worked, and the case was quietly dismissed.

Nevertheless, this is an important, provocative, and meticulous book, a welcome addition to the history of the Court—and of contemporary America.

Daniel R. Hart

Playing Chicken with an Iron Horse by Fred Rosenblum

Rosenblum is the author of Hollow Tin Jingles and Vietnumb, which contain some fine Vietnam War-related poetry. He joined the Marine Corps in 1967 and “Six months later, I’d piss myself on the banks of the Perfume River,” Rosenblum writes in his newest poetry collection, Playing Chicken with an Iron Horse (Formite, 104 pp. $15, paper; $4.99, e book).

Much of his poetry in this volume mentions the Vietnam War in passing. Here’s an example from one of the book’s longer poems, “That I would cheat that poor old woman.”

Future lung cancers were of no concern

When grandma sent a carton of Winston’s to me

Sleeping with rats in the charred mountainside bunkers

Of Quang Tri, a little more than a stone’s throw

From the DMZ in 1968

“Here, if Charlie don’t gitcha’, these will”

The Christmas card (should’ve) read

But lest I deviate, it was the game of cribbage

Or as we called it crib…about which I’d like to relate…

That I would cheat—gain leverage by carefully

Focusing on the lenses of my grandmother’s

Spectacles—stealing reflections of what she’d

Held in her hand

Rosenblum’s carefully composed poetry covers all aspects of American life, leaving no stone unturned and no cliché unplumbed. He is a careful student of the American vernacular. He benefits from careful reading. In fact, his poems make little sense if read in a hurry.The cover of this little book contains clues to that fact. The railroad ties the poet’s sneakers are walking on are not an accident.

This is an important book of poetry about the American predicament and situation. It should be handled carefully. I hope I live long enough to read Fred Rosenblum’s next book of poetry. I’m certain that will be a treat.

–David Willson

Empires by John Balaban

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Empires (Copper Canyon Press, 80 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the award-winning poet, novelist, and translator John Balaban’s eighth poetry collection. As the title implies, the poems in the book covers the globe. Balaban—a conscientious objector who volunteered to go to Vietnam during the war and wound up carry a weapon during the 1968 Tet Offensive—has not let much grass grow under his feet. In the new book, he roams the planet and the centuries.

The Vietnam War is not mentioned until page seven in the book’s second poem, but that is not the last mention. Far from it. Balaban is one of those poets who has not gotten the war out of his system. Has he even tried to expunge it?  I doubt it.

The best way to communicate the purity and power of Balaban’s poetic vision is to quote from “Returning After Our War,” one of his many poems dealing with the Vietnam War. Balaban, a North Carolina State University Professor Emeritus of English, is at his poetic best when writing about that awful war that he was personally involved in, a war that was the subject of his acclaimed memoir, Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Vietnam.

 

I woke up to animal groans

Down in the stairwell  Flynn and Stone

Were beating up a young thief

Who had broken in to steal their bikes

Bucking an M 16 against the kid’s ear

Then punching him in the stomach with the butt

Before they bum-rushed him out the door doubled over and wheezing for air.

I stammered no in a syllable that rose

Like a bubble lifting off the ocean floor.

Ten days later, they were dead.  Flynn

And Stone who dealt in clarities of force,

Who motorcycled out to report the war,

Shot at a roadblock on Highway 1.

Nearly all those Saigon friends are gone now,

Gone like smoke. Like incense. 

The friends and the adventure exist only in this poem and in John Balaban’s mind and memory. But for now that’s enough. It’ll be a sad day when he puts down his pen and stops producing the best poetry of the war.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that Balaban never wore an Army uniform, let alone a Marine Corps uniform. He helped wounded and hurt children. Hard to top that mission.

John Balaban is one of the very few saints produced by the Vietnam War.

–David Willson

Unbreakable Hearts! by Earl “Dusty” Trimmer

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Earl “Dusty” Trimmer’s Unbreakable Hearts! A True, Heart-Wrenching Story about Victory… Forfeited! (Dog Ear Publishing, 556 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $29.99, paper: $9.99, Kindle) is like no other Vietnam War book I’ve come across. In Trimmer’s third book, he remains almost spectral; very little is said regarding his background and history beyond the fact that he served as an Army infantryman in Vietnam in 1968-69 and that he has had his run-ins with the VA.

The book consists of eleven pages of a glossary and sources, 116 pages of photos, and 450 pages of text. Trimmer covers lots of topics, but most curve back to the original premise of the book: the oppression of the Vietnamese people. He delves deeply into the history of Vietnam and Southeast Asia and the people who have lived there.

The country we know today as Vietnam was not always so. Trimmer includes information on the earliest invasions by the Chinese, starting around 200 BC. Vietnam’s “simple farmers, with pitchforks and knives,” he writes, have repulsed the Mongol hordes three times, the Chinese perhaps a half dozen times, the Japanese during World War II, the French before and after the war, and finally the Americans, who were trying to save everyone from communism.

Trimmer portrays the Vietnamese throughout these invasions and conflicts as fighting to preserve and protect a homeland—not to attack or to take and hold additional real estate.  He waxes eloquently in defense of these efforts as he recounts, often in great detail, the nation’s long history of repelling invaders. He shows that the Vietnamese were just trying, over all these years, to live in peace, in one country.

Trimmer also goes over the politics and people involved in what the Vietnamese call the American War. He then reaches into the current U.S. administration for instances of both validation and recrimination. At times, the book’s path isn’t clear; at other times, it’s confusing. This book, though, is full of interesting historical facts, well laced with a recounting of Dusty Trimmer’s experiences as an infantryman.

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Trimmer in country

The seventeen chapters read as if each were proofread and edited by different people. There are, for example, short paragraphs that are repeated almost word-for-word, frequently close together. And there are spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.

Trimmer has offered quite an interesting story. It could have been presented much better had it been more tightly edited and proofed.

The book’s website is unbreakableheartsbook.com

–Tom Werzyn

The Oath by Dennis Koller

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Dennis Koller’s The Oath (Pen Books, 336 pp. $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is an exciting and fast-moving mystery thriller. In November of 1966, Tom McGuire was shot down over North Vietnam and spent the next seven years as a prisoner of war, returning home in 1973 as part of the first group of POWS released.

In 2000 McGuire is a homicide detective in San Francisco when an award-winning columnist for the city’s largest newspaper, Ruth Wasserman, is murdered in an unusual manner. After being shot and killed at close-range, her arms were trussed behind her in a way that McGuire immediately realized was the manner used by the guards in that long-ago Hanoi prison.

McGuire soon recalls that Wasserman, while a writer for the Village Voice, along with a small group of female college students, had visited the Hanoi Hilton. While there, the women betrayed a handful of American prisoners who had slipped them scraps of paper with their Social Security numbers. Three of the men immediately paid the ultimate price for trying to get that info back to the U.S. government.

The investigation into the Wasserman murder soon uncovers the deaths of a few of the other women. All were found with their arms bound behind them. McGuire realizes the killer is likely a former POW now on a tour of murderous vengeance. Furthermore, it may be someone he knew back then. And why does the governor of California appear to be the next person on the list?

Ultimately, McGuire’s aggressive investigation leads to higher-ups in his department who then conspire to take him off the case. Unofficially, he continues and, with the help of a street informant, bulldozes his way through secret government hit squads and deadly Vietnamese gangs.

Koller pulls off a difficult task as he alternates chapters between those written in McGuire’s first-person voice, and third-person ones describing the unknown perpetrator known as “the man.”

Throughout the story the reader is forced to think about the point at which a person with antiwar views becomes a traitor. But Koller also makes you aware of the unintentional war-time bombing of civilian areas and to consider what constitutes an “immoral” military order. There’s the legacy of the My Lai massacre.

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Dennis Koller

The book is divided into sixty short chapters. Just past the half-way point the story begins racing, literally against the clock, toward a satisfying climax. Some might see the book as pulp-ish wish-fulfillment tale. I didn’t.

For me, The Oath worked well as a straightforward thriller. And it kept my interest throughout.

The author’s website is denniskoller.com

–Bill McCloud