Asian Stained by W. Thomas Leonard

Now that I’ve read the stories in W. Thomas Leonard’s Asian Stained (BookBaby, 235 pp., $2.99, Kindle), I believe that the title indicates the author’s hard-held belief that the Vietnam War stains (or taints or besmirches) everyone who experienced it. This book starts off by introducing two Marines I assumed would be main characters, 2nd Lts. Kevin Charles Barrett and William Francis Kelly. Both are on the plane to Vietnam for their thirteen-month tour of duty. Leonard served as a Marine lieutenant in the Vietnam War in 1968.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to be surprised.

These two young men have been best friends since they were nine years old. They both had just graduated from Fordham, with scholarships, in 1967. Not exactly a great time to graduate from college. They both promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps and were assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, winding up in Dong Ha, in Vietnam in I Corps close to the DMZ.

The book then skips forward fourteen years to the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Two old men are at the wall—a Mr. Barrett and a Mr. Kelly. They find the names of their sons—Kevin Barrett and William Kelly—right at the top of the panel where they expected them to be. We’ve read five percent of the book, at least according to my Kindle.

The next section is entitled “Deserters.” However, we don’t get to follow Barrett and Kelly’s tours in Vietnam. I can deal with that, but what does the reader get? Lots of stories that follow. Including at least three dealing with Marines being incarcerated in brigs, with much detail about that confinement.

Twenty percent of the way through the book the reader encounters magical realism in the form of a vision or a fantasy of something that looks like a large aircraft with no wheels. It’s V-shaped and has the form of a wall. “It’s where the past, the present and the future merged,” a Marine says.  

This is a bleak book, made up of many stories, often of second-generation Americans who were raised in this country of opportunity and served in a war that horribly scarred them or killed them. The dozen or so stories are rarely happy ones, not even a little bit.

Once we get past “Deserters,” we are presented with stories in which hard-working veterans are fired unfairly or treated brutally. The stories are well-written but often hard to read. I, for one, hate to read about people who are cast into outer darkness for no reason other than the fact that someone with power can do so.

In one of the stories near the end of the book the character, Alex Kazakov, returns from his war minus his vision and three of his limbs. He is a character we get to know well, so his terrible scarring and crippling really hits home. Tears came to my eyes as I read the bad stuff that happens to him.  He’s lost everything but his mind. He learns Braille and does make something of himself, earning a Master’s in Creative Writing.

The overwhelming message of Asia Stained is a warning to everyone to avoid serving in the Marine Corps, especially in the Vietnam War. I didn’t need convincing; I am not going to recommend to my children that they join the Marines. My father was a Marine on Iwo Jima. One was enough for this family.

Read this collection of stories if you want to consume a really sad book of well-written tales about Marines. Otherwise, read something else. I’m having major trouble getting these stories out of my mind. And out of my dreams.

—David Willson

All Would Be Heroes by Jim Maher

 

 

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Jim Maher is a U. S. Navy veteran who served for a few months in Da Nang during the Vietnam War. His book, All Would be Heroes (Tate, 146 pp., $12.99, paper; $10.99, e book ), we’re told, “is a work of his mind, dreams, and what if’s, plus excerpts from stories he heard.”  Maher also wrote a book called Leaders, Losers and Lessons.

This small book is presented as a series of short stories, each of which features a main character who seems to be disconnected from the main character in the other stories. Then they link up near the end of this book in action and theme.

We first meet Tom, a whining, complaining coward who never shuts up. He’s trained as an Army postal clerk and stationed near Da Nang.

Next we meet Ned, who joined ROTC and wants to be a wealthy broker when he grows up. He was trained for Naval Intelligence and stationed near Phu Bai. He did courier duty, and is shot down with a satchel full of secret documents, which he carefully hides. Then we meet Ben, a hospital corpsman in Da Nang  assigned to a Seabees unit.

Throughout the book the author does not waste false respect for the  enemy. One chapter is entitled “Viet Cong Scum.” Agent Orange is acknowledged and the VA is criticized for failing to help veterans with  PTSD. The book has a frequent sardonic edge. Maher writes, for instance that the mother of a fallen soldier is “given his medals in a beautiful wooden case.”

In the end, more medals are handed out and whiners show some heroism. Tom, the malingerer, “was now popular in his hometown because of his heroics in Vietnam, so he didn’t have a problem getting dates and spending a lot of time in bars,” Maher writes. “People enjoyed buying him drinks and sharing their pot with him. He was getting drunk and high on a nightly basis, and life for Tom was good.”

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Jim Maher

After getting drunk and high one night, Tom tries to cross some railroad tracks. He “failed to see the freight train backing slowly. The train’s wheel crushed him, killing Tom instantly.”  Just desserts, I say. No happy endings.

I highly recommend this book to overly optimistic high school seniors who think that being an American hero is all roses.

—David Willson

The Jake Fischer Stories by Stewart Bird

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Stewart Bird, the author of The Jake Fischer Stories (Dog Ear Publishing, 176 pp., $12.97, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novelist (Murder at the Yeshiva), a TV documentary writer/producer (The Wobblies, Coming Home, et al.), and a member of Vietnam Veterans of America.  I suspect his military history is similar to that of the stories’ protagonist, Jack Fischer.

Bird has produced a baker’s dozen of short stories of varying lengths with the protagonist Jake Fischer, as the title indicates.  Jake is drafted into the Army and ends up as a psychiatric social worker at the Michigan Army Hospital during the Vietnam War.

Some of the titles of the stories are:  “Basic,” “The  War at Home,” “Coming Home,” and “Chicago 68.” The stories reflect the titles. All are interesting and well-written. “Basic” takes place in the fall of 1965 at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn and then moves to Fort Dix in New Jersey. “They took everyone with a heartbeat,” Bird writes.

The story “War at Home” is mostly about drugs. Bird refers to Robert S. MacNamara as “the systems analyst who planned and ran the Vietnam War:  The face of death.” He certainly captures my feelings about the man.

The reader gets references to LBJ and how many kid he killed today, as well as to Scarface, Full Metal Jacket, Ron Kovic, Bob Dylan, Catch-22, and President Nixon looking like a cattle rustler in a John Ford Western. There is a lot of wit and some humor in these serious literary stories. I enjoyed all of them.

I highly recommend this collection of short stories to anyone who wishes to read finely written short fiction about the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.stewartbird.net/the_jake_fischer_stories_125234.htmu

—David Willson

Eating With Veterans by Michael Lund

Michael Lund served in the U. S. Army as a correspondent in Vietnam, 1970-71. He is the author of a memoir, Route 66 to Vietnam: A Draftee’s Story, and a book of short stories, How Not to Tell a War Story.  Lund’s latest book is Eating With Veterans (BeachHouse Books, 268 pp., $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a book of twenty serious short stories.

Lundh, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, holds a PhD in literature from Emory University, so I expected his stories to be literate and well-written. I was not disappointed.

Most of the characters in these fine stories are aging veterans, mostly of the Vietnam War. Often these veterans and their companions are eating, drinking, and talking. Occasionally a story will seem like a deliberate homage to Raymond Carver, for instance “The Soy Bean Field.”  I intend this as the highest of compliments.

Most of the stories communicate an atmosphere of social unease. Many take place, at least in part, in South Vietnam, and give us insights into the lives of soldiers who served there in communications. Some of the titles are: “The Rules of Engagement,” “Drugs Away,” “Blood Drive,” “The Death of Short-timer Sam,” and “Counterinsurgency. ”

Some of the stories that have non-military sounding titles are the ones that contain the most overt military scenes, for instance Lund’s Tet Offensive story, “Magician.”  We get a reference in that story to the school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, where the correspondent was trained—and where I was trained as a stenographer. I am always pleased when I read a book that deals with what the 80 to 90 percent of us did in Vietnam: not take part in combat. This is one of the best books yet that deals seriously with that aspect of our war.

Lund uses the phrase “rear echelon troops,” and the derogatory term “REMF” does not appear. It’s a term, by the way, that I never heard in Vietnam, but trip over endlessly in Vietnam War combat books, both novels and memoirs.

Lund does deal with some war-horse items such as Agent Orange, and he does have a story that mentions the oft-related tale of returning soldiers being spat upon and called baby killers. But he also includes  “Hadrian’s Wall,”  a rare story dealing with the Coast Guard’s role in the Vietnam War. Jimi Hendrix, one of my favorite Vietnam War era veterans, gets more than a mention—he gets an entire story, “Look Alike.”

Michael Lund

In “Camp Hoover” Lund captures an elusive feeling that I have tried to put into words, but failed to do so: how the past and the present can get intertwined and confused. It’s a great story and the saddest one in the book—perhaps one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.

I highly recommend the stories in this book to all those drawn to serious writing about the Vietnam War and to seekers after the whole story—not just a narrow story told over and over again.

—David Willson