West Point graduate Alan Armstrong served in Cambodia during the last stages of the American war in Vietnam. He fought with the Cambodian government against the Khmer Rouge, and was particularly close to Gen. Lon Non, the brother of Cambodian President Lon Nol. Armstrong flew out of Pnom Penh in 1975 on the last helicopter with American Ambassador John Gunther Dean.
Alan Armstrong is a well-educated person. The title of his new novel, Wolf by the Ears (BookBaby, 338 pp., $16, paper; $6.99, Kindle), shows it. The words come from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote John Holmes in 1820: “As it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go,” Also, the first paragraph of the book contains two words—“absara” and “sampot”—I had never encountered before.
Armstrong tells a strong and interesting story, and his book was fun to read. The language is strong and very much in the vernacular. Expressions such as “shit weasel,” “whack a mole,” and “pseudo-analytical fartlets” are much in evidence. Shazam and Captain Marvel get a workout as well. Even Howdy Doody and Chief Thunderthud make appearances.
The Fog of War also comes at us like a platoon of spinning anvils, and one of the characters speaks in a Japanese-cum-John Wayne voice. REMFs take a beating in a long rant. I believe this is the most thorough beating we rear-echelon Remington Raiders have been subjected to in recent Vietnam War literature.
The most enjoyable aspect of this novel was the treatment of food and diet. Our hero, Maj. DeRussy is confronted at one point with a main dish of turtle at a state dinner. Most of an entire short chapter is devoted to dealing with DeRussy trying to get this dish down his gullet. DeRussy talks to himself as he tries to eat the dish:
“Get tough, Big Guy. Don’t flash in your plate. Pretend its pasta. DeRussy singled out a piece of something and tugged. He had to wrap his fork around whatever he had latched on to and tug more than once before it snapped up, looking like a piece of strozzapreti.
“It felt like a tapeworm sliding down his throat, the front gaining momentum, the end grudgingly going along. After he swallowed, it occurred to him that anything that fine probably wasn’t a part of the original turtle but was most likely some species of parasite. He hoped that none of it or any of its pals has survived the heat to set up housekeeping inside his head, heart or eyeballs.”
This passage evoked memories and fears that I’d brought back with me from Vietnam, where I’d been much more brave than smart when it came to enjoying the meals that were easily available at little sheds alongside backstreets. The food smelled so good, but we were warned that it was deadly. But here I am, more than fifty years later, still alive—not healthy, not even marginally well, but still alive and functioning. If I had it to do over again, maybe I’d be more safety conscious. Maybe not.
I highly recommend Wolf by the Ears to anyone who is curious about what life was like in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The Khmer Republic of the 1970s comes alive on the pages of this novel. Armstrong has a rare gift for making alien cultures interesting and vibrant.