Sagahawk by the Sea John F. Bronzo

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The Vietnam War figures in John Bronzo’s latest novel, Sagahawk by the Sea: A Love Story Changes History (Archway, 270 pp., $34.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper’ $3.99, e book), but it comes along relatively late in the story. This is a novel of time travel, so the story moves anywhere and anytime the author wants it to go.

This time travel novel begins in 1961, then proceeds in sections to 1967. Bronzo—whose previous book was Mary Bernadette: Secrets of a Dallas Moon: A Young Vietnamese Girl’s Tale from the Grave about the Killing of JFK—dedicates this new book in part to his high school classmate, Peter E. Sipp, know as “Dude.” Sipp “was killed in Vietnam when he threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies,” Bronzo writes, “sacrificing his life so they could live out theirs.”

This novel includes the author’s explanation of what really happened on July 7, 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico, with that mysterious crash of a so-called flying saucer. One of the characters in this novel is sent there to investigate.

“At first it was said to have been a flying saucer, but later it was identified as a weather balloon,” Bronzo writes.

This novel jumbles up time so that unexpected things happen to those who are affected by the mutants that show up in Roswell with a warning to Americans related to Russian missiles in Cuba and God knows what else.

“If 1965 is the year that Vietnam first invaded my consciousness, 1966 is the year that Vietnam caught the nation’s attention in earnest,” Bronzo writes. “Protests against the war became a commonplace occurrence on college campuses, in cities across the country, and on everyone’s television screen.”

That’s true as far as it goes, but this book, as most books do, makes it seem as though everyone in this country was talking and thinking about the Vietnam War. But most of us were not searching our souls.

The National Guard and the Reserves get a mention as refuge for “the savvy” and the well connected draft evaders and that others were fleeing to Canada. Most draft age men, just hoped for the best and went along with whatever came their way. That included your reviewer.

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Bronzo

For those who enjoy conjecture about the options available in history, including during the Vietnam War, Sagahawk by the Sea might be the novel for you.

As the subtitle has it, “A Love Story Changes History.” Read the novel and see if you agree that that really happens.

Bronzo’s website is johnfbronzo.wordpress.com

—David Willson

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Curse of the Coloring Book by Howard L. Hibbard

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Howard Hibbard quit college in 1967 to volunteer for the Army. He served as an infantry lieutenant in the Vietnam War, including a stint as a company commander.

Hibbard’s Curse of the Coloring Book: A Novel Inspired by a True Story (Ghost Dog Enterprises, 384 pp., $16.95, paper) is based on his combat and legal experiences, along with PTSD, which has been dominant in his life.

The novel, Hibbard’s first, is told in two back-and-forth sections: those dealing with the long ago past when main character Herald Lloyd was young and in Vietnam, and those recounting the recent, current life he is leading as an attorney who messed up some paperwork and whose career is in severe jeopardy. I found myself focusing more on the Vietnam War sections and being much less absorbed in the legal career Herald is fighting to hang onto.

When reading an infantry novel I tend to keep track of recurring motifs, and I did that with this book. The classic song for GIs of the Vietnam War, The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was referred to so many times I lost track of how many. That’s a first for me. The last reference takes up nearly an entire page and emphasizes the chaotic camaraderie of an entire platoon singing that song loudly and off key.

Another recurring motif—in this book and in many Vietnam War infantry books—is John Wayne, the man and the movie star. Not to mention REMFs, shit burning, fragging and western references such as Wild Bill Hickok, Custer’s Last Stand, “saddle up,” “died with his boots on,” and others. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry collection, Coney Island of the Mind, is the backbone of the book, as Hibbard includes many quotes and references to it.

Much is made of the “fact” that Vietnam was always hot and never cooled off at night. That may have been true in some places, but I got cold enough at night many times in Long Binh to need a wool Army blanket.

Howard Hibbert

Howard Hibbard

The two stories—the legal mess of Herald’s adult life and the youthful adventure in the Vietnam War—were absorbing to a degree. The Vietnam War episodes were what I enjoyed reading. I’ve never been a lawyer so that might be part of the reason.

I did tire of the wacky characters in Vietnam with wondrous nicknames such as Dogman. But I’ve learned that is the price a reader pays for choosing to read a Vietnam War infantry novel.

As for the coloring book in the title, it is easily ignored with no loss of meaning to the novel.

The author’s website is howardlhibbard.com

—David Willson

Keep Forever: A Novel by Alexa Kingaard

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In her novel, Keep Forever (BookBaby, 268 pp., $14.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Alexa Kingaard thanks the Veteran’s Writing Group in Oceanside, California, which gave her “shelter from the storm.” Keep Forever, she writes, is based on her experiences living with and “tragically losing” a Vietnam War veteran.

The book tells the story of Paul O’Brien, a Marine who returns from the war with terrible burdens he shares with those he loves. “It was inspired by the Vietnam neterans I have known and loved,” Kingaard writes, “and their lifelong struggles with PTSD.”

Paul O’Brien wants to make a nightmare-free life for himself, but his sleep is disturbed by guilt. Blurbs from readers say that they couldn’t put the novel down once they started reading it, even when they were sobbing. I admit to shedding a few tears myself.

Late in the book we are told that “no amount of visits to the VA were fixing the problem, and the answers from the overworked and understaffed medical facility were always the same. ‘It’s the best we can do. We don’t have the resources. You have to wait like everyone else. It’s a long line.’”

That’s the tune my friends and I frequently heard in the years immediately after the war and for a long time after that. However, things have improved at my local VA (in the Seattle area).They may not have not improved elsewhere.

Paul O’Brien comes alive on the page as a seriously disturbed veteran, but also as a believable one. He keeps a duffel bag packed at all times to take with him when he leaves the house so he is prepared for all exigencies. He is very slow to get ready and is usually late for all appointments—if he makes them at all.

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Alexa Kingaard

When his wife suggests he see a therapist, his reaction is, “Definitely not. That would be cowardly and weak.”

He remains on high alert at all times. He postpones going to see his doctor, even though he has serious symptoms.

When he finally goes to the doctor, he’s told he has stage-four prostate cancer, and it’s too late for Paul O’Brien. He was a lifelong collector, storing and hoarding his treasures intending to leave them as his legacy to those he loved. Or so he told himself.

He would have been wiser to give them the gift of himself. Most likely all that junk would prove a burden to his loved ones.

If you are looking for a very sad book that tells the familiar story of a veteran unable to get past his war, this book could be the one for you.

The author’s website is alexakingaard.com

–David Willson

Best We Forget by Bernard Clancy

For much of Bernard Clancy’s novel, Best We Forget (Indra, 420 pp., $16.50, paperback; $7.99, Kindle), we are locked inside the head of a young Australian serviceman, Donkey Simpson, where we are never far from what Clancy calls “a slice of madness.”

Donkey Simpson is stationed in Saigon for a year. He spends much of that time swimming in beer, hoping and praying to survive. But it’s not just his life Simpson wants to retain. It’s his sanity, his sense of order and, perhaps, his patriotism.

It isn’t long before the wide-eyed Simpson comes to realize there is no order here, only chaos. As for the mission, it changes from day to day, depending on who’s giving the orders and what mood they’re in.

There is occasional violence and a backdrop of intrigue. But mostly there is gnawing heat and relentless boredom. Simpson struggles to pass the time and lusts for a young Asian woman who turns out to be a spy. Given what he will learn about the lives of the “nogs,” as he calls them, Simpson is torn between a sense of sympathy and one of betrayal.

So he swings between caring and hatred—for her and for all the faces he passes on the street. The solution: bar girls, beer and—when he can find it—air conditioning.

Best We Forget is fiction. But the author, who served in Vietnam in 1968-69, paints a realistic picture of the desolation of the country, the lack of clarity in the mission, and the uncertainty of the allies’ commitment.

Truth and clear-headedness often comes—not from the leadership—but from privates and corporals, as we see in an early exchange between two young soldiers talking about the Tet Offensive.

That will never happen again, one says. “Don’t bet on it,” comes the reply. “Charlie’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

After months of duty, Simpson begins to wear down.

“He began going out more often, drinking more,” Clancy writes. “He even began buying Saigon teas for bar girls, anything to relieve the boredom, to escape the crushing reality of what, like so many before and around him, he was beginning to see as a complete and utterly pointless exercise. Worse, he felt chained into a madness which suffocated and choked. And the more he squirmed, the tighter the chains twisted.”

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Clancy

Clancy paints a vivid picture of life in Saigon.

“As Matthews weaved the Land Rover through millions of motor scooters and motorbikes, pushbikes and the clapped-out relics of French cars, he saw a huge, filthy, stinking slum. People wandered listlessly among roadside huts made from cardboard boxes and slabs of American beer-can stamped sheet metal; rubbish, filth, refuse, everything just dumped everywhere. Buildings, filthy, old, dilapidated, falling to pieces.

“The stench almost turned Donkey’s stomach inside out. Exhaust smoke from the motorbikes blued the air. And God it was hot.”

 

Clancy is at his best when he shows us what he’s seen. For that reason, some readers might wish for a bit more description and a bit less escapism.

The author’s website is bernardclancy.net

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin by Dennis Latham

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Dennis Latham’s novel, Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin (YS Gazelle, 200 pp., $16, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is fiction, almost embarrassingly so. Latham is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam. The book’s blurbs refer to constant laughter provoked in readers by the crazy antics of the characters in this novel. I didn’t have that problem.

The plot of the novel—first published in 2009—concerns the plight of John Elvin, who is twenty-four years old and still a virgin. He is determined to change that status, but he has no idea how to go about doing that. Not a clue. The virgin he meets, Lori Anderson, is eager to help Elvin with his plight, but her eagerness does not translate to anything much happening with any dispatch.

There is a crazy Vietnam veteran in this novel, John’s brother. He was wounded in the war so that his head resembles a butt, which seems funny to everyone but me.

This book has large print and wide margins and can be read in a jiffy, but it still seemed slow going to me. It takes place the summer of 1982, “before HIV made sex an extreme risk, back when condoms were called rubbers,” Latham writes.

It was a different, primitive time. No cell phones, home computers, or satellite TV. So, I guess the book works as a cultural artifact of a certain time and place in America. But I did not find it to be funny.

—David Willson

A Police Action by AA Freda

AA Freda served in the Army’s 5th Infantry Division in the Vietnam War during the period immediately after the Tet Offensive. Freda is the author of Goodbye Rudy Kazoody ,a coming-of-age novel. 

The main characters in Freda’s A Police Action (Dorrance Publishing, 254 pp., $25, hardcover; $16.75, paper; $9.99, Kindle)–which also is a coming-of-age tale–are nineteen-year-old Samantha (Sam) Powers and twenty-one year old James Coppi. It’s a “meet cute,” love-at-first-sight book. And it demonstrates that love is hard, very hard, especially when the female protagonist is pregnant by someone other than the young man she is in love with.

Both of these young people are confused. It doesn’t help matters that James is headed for Vietnam as an Army draftee. Is there any hope for a couple who met in a place called Country Honky Tonk in Colorado Springs?  As the cover blurb warns us, “uncertainty is the only certainty” in this story.

As a survivor of the 1960s, I recognized that era as a main character of this story. The author has done a good job of portraying the 1960s, including the effect the Vietnam War had on the country and the young people who were knocked topsy-turvy by it.

James is something of a con man. He operates as an Army Shylock, lending money before payday to all and sundry. He goes into the Army prepared to operate this way, and has trusted relatives who wire him the money he needs to keep his dirty little business going. I kept expecting to see him dragged into an alley and get his wrists broken, but (spoiler alert) that does not happen.

James does get shipped to Vietnam and does serve his time there, being at risk some of the time although he is mostly a rear echelon trooper. Freda offers a full discussion of the role of REMFs in the war, by the way, and gives some statistics.

To wit: “There’re eight to ten rear-echelon motherfuckers for every one of us up in the front.”

The huge base at Long Binh is accurately characterized as a Little America with tennis courts, nightclubs, restaurants, hot meals, and hot showers. Body count and shit-burning details get full discussion and ham and motherfuckers and fragging get more than a mention.

Also, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000 program—the one that resulted in underqualified men being drafted—is discussed, and said men are called “retards.”  Not a kind label for men who through no fault of their own ended up serving in the Army.

A A Freda

Serious subjects are dealt with, but mostly this is a novel of young love in which Sam and James struggle to survive in a world out of their control. I enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it, especially to young adults.

I am one no longer, but during the period portrayed in this novel I was, and I went through much of what our young lovers did.

My heart went out to them in the course of this sensitive story.

The author’s website is https://www.aafreda.com/a-police-action.html

–David Willson

Nightmare by Robert E. Ford, Jr.

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Robert Ford served in Army Intelligence in the Vietnam War. He’s another in a long line of American boys who enlisted in the Army to avoid serving in the infantry. Ford figured that if he got drafted, carrying a rifle would have been his fate. He deployed to Vietnam in April 1969 and volunteered to extend his term to serve a second tour.  Ford’s novel, Nightmare (Dorrance, 178 pp. $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his real-life experiences.

Nightmare is the story of Army Staff Sgt. Jack Butler, who undertakes a dangerous mission into Viet Cong-controlled territory. Aside from the enemy, he must put up with “an inexperienced ‘cherry’ lieutenant” who always knows best because he’s a lieutenant and everyone else is enlisted scum.

I’ve read other infantry novels featuring green lieutenants who have instincts to do everything wrong,  such as insisting on being saluted in “Indian Country,” even though that makes them a prime target, and crossing rice paddies because the land is open and looks totally harmless. This LT places himself and everyone else at risk, which leads to his men considering the option of fragging him.

The novel is barely half over and this stupid lieutenant gets cut in half just above the waist by “a previously unseen machine gun.” At that point all of the conflict drains out of the book with the LT dead and gone.

I missed him terribly. I wished he or a substitute would have returned to give the novel some piss and vinegar. Didn’t happen.

Later in the book, Ford, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has returning veterans getting spat upon in San Francisco—not just once, but five times. Ham and motherfuckers get star billing in this little book and REMF’s get the usual attention.

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Robert Ford, Then & Now

The novel centers on a Quick Reaction Force unit. Gen. Westmoreland ordered each unit in III Corps to create, train, and maintain a QRF for the direct defense of the Saigon area.

“One such platoon of rear echelon, clerks and jerks, was headquartered in a compound in the Saigon suburb of Gia Dinh,” Ford says in the book’s Prologue.

The book moves right along and has a useful glossary. It’s good that there is a novel dealing with a QRF. It’s the first I’ve stumbled upon.

–David Willson