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

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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

The Peninsula by Michael Burns

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The Peninsula (Amazon Digital Services, 455 pp. $4.99, Kindle) is a novel by Michael Burns about an American plot to assassinate the Supreme Leader of North Korea. The crew of the USS Nemesis, whom readers met in the previous book in this series, The Horn, are an important part of this scheme.

Sailing into the waters of the Korean Peninsula, the Nemesis is tasked with giving support to a highly classified mission to kill Kim Jong-un. If they pull this off, they will avert nuclear war. If they screw up, a nuclear exchange with North Korea is all but guaranteed.

Burns’ novel The Horn also deals with the U.S. Navy–in this case taking on Somali pirates. The pirates have declared war on the Navy, but get more than they bargained for. In the book, a rookie Navy lieutenant must land a SEAL team on the coast of Somalia. The crew includes the first female warfare operators and various specialists, all of whom are disguised as civilians. They sail to shore aboard a luxury yacht equipped with high-tech weapons and the best food and chef that the world has to offer.

Did I mention that the women are all highly trained to wear bikinis, dance, and look like arm and eye candy?

Their mission is to hunt down and kill a dangerous group of pirates who are now connected with Islamic radicals. They team also is after an arms dealer who is supplying the pirates with state-of-the art missiles.

Burns, who served in the Central Highlands in the Vietnam War, writes what he calls “high-concept” novels. I believe this means that they contain a lot of action, beautiful women and fast-paced, extremely difficult stunts and encounter coincidences that are beyond unbelievable.

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Michael Burns

I don’t feel that I’m giving anything away when I confess that the attempt by the specially trained American crew to kill Kim Jong-un in The Peninsula is not successful.

The reason is that a naked teenager who has been raped and tortured by the Supreme Leader finds a razor-sharp knife, hides it in her underwear, and uses it to murder the Leader.

That scene left me scratching my head. I loved it that she killed him with a knife that she hid in her gauzy underwear—but really?

If you love books of this sort, then Peninsula and The Horn are for you.

–David Willson

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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Kristin Hannah has published a long list of well-received, best-selling novels, most with strong female characters. Her latest, The Great Alone (St. Martin’s Press, 448 pp. $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is no exception. Two people, a mother and daughter, are at the center of the novel. They revolve around the main male character, who is one of the most dangerous and seriously damaged Vietnam veterans in modern popular American fiction.

He beats his wife; he beats his lovely, thirteen-year-old daughter. These were hard scenes to read for this Vietnam veteran, damaged to an extent by my time in the military and having been raised by a Marine Corps veteran of Iwo Jima.

The Allbright family becomes convinced—or at least Ernt, the damaged veteran, does—that moving to Alaska will be the way for him to deal with his demons. Or to leave them behind in an America that he no longer wants to be a part of—and that seems to want no part of him.

It’s said repeatedly in the novel that Vietnam changed Ernt or that it broke him. He needs to be fixed, but there is no program set up to fix him. He refuses to deal with the VA, even to try to get a disability check. He’s too proud and haughty for that. He received medals during his tour in Vietnam, but Hannah makes little of that.

Hippies and peace freaks have taken over America and Ernt is characterized as a “baby killer.”  In a speech early in the novel, he says:  “I just want… more, I guess. Not a job. A life. I want to walk down the street and not have to worry about being called a baby-killer.  I want…” Hannah does not give Ernt the ability to state what he wants or needs, except that he is convinced that Alaska will be the place for him to have freedom and peace of mind.

The Allbright family arrives in Alaska completely unprepared for coping with the situation they find themselves in, unskilled in all the ways they need to survive. They find danger at every turn: bears; cold, deep icy rivers; not much food; and even less money.

People try hard to help them, but Ernt is not the sort who does well with getting help, nor with asking for help. His way of dealing with frustration is to anoint the problem with alcohol. He self-medicates at the slightest provocation.

His wife Leni and daughter Cora begin to wonder if they will survive in Alaska with Ernt as part of their family. They struggle for years, but eventually choose an extreme solution to their problem.

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Kristin Hannah

I found the novel engrossing and in some parts so tense that I had to close the book and catch my breath before continuing to read. Ernt is a realistically drawn Vietnam War veteran, one very much like several I have known well.

He is a veteran I avoided becoming, but if my circumstances had been different during my tour, I could imagine becoming that sort of veteran. Even having worked a rear-echelon job failed to prepare me to re-enter America effortlessly and with any kind of grace or equanimity.

Read this book and see if you recognize yourself or a friend in the character of Ernt. It could very well be the case.

The author’s website is kristinhannah.com

—David Willson

Creatures Born of War by Bruce Taneski

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Creatures Born of War: A Novel about the Korean and Vietnam Conflicts (CreateSpace, 574 pp. $23, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a continuation of Bruce Taneski’s first novel, Creatures Born of War: A Novel about the World Wars. Both books emphasize, Taneski says, a “depiction of the psycho-social impact of war; not only for the veterans who served during these wars, but also the lasting impact post war for the service member and their families.”

Taneski served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War with recon companies in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade and the 5th Infantry Division. Forty years later he is still living with the trauma he endured during that war. The writing of these novels became a way that the author coped with his symptoms. In some cases Taneski uses real-life experiences in this novel.

This massive book contains two not-so-small war novels—one about the Korean War and one set during the Vietnam War. Taneski struggles mightily with apostrophes and commas in this novel, and the apostrophes and commas win the battle. Or they lose, depending on how you look at it.

Taneski’s strength lies in his ability to tell a story. He’d be better off telling tales around a campfire and letting errant apostrophes and commas fly off into the night sky like fireflies or sparks from the campfire. He lists two editors in the front of the novel; it would appear that too much escaped their editorial attention.  

In the first book in this series, the Bataan Death March was an important part of the story. In this novel, the Tet Offensive gets thorough coverage. The characters we’ve grown attached to in the hundreds of pages of narrative get worked over in a serious way by the Viet Cong and the many enemies who rise up to run Americans out of their country.

Walter Cronkite’s famous statement about the war being lost is echoed by characters in the novel. Their opinion is that the country should be given back to the peasants in the rice fields.

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Bruce Taneski

John Wayne gets several mentions and even the actor Aldo Ray gets a shout out. Ham and motherfuckers are mentioned, but the characters seem to think they are canned ham and eggs, rather than ham and limas. Hippies are busy cursing returning troops and even spitting on them, and the epithet “Baby Killers” is bandied about.

The only time I’ve ever been exposed to any of this is in novels and memoirs. And I returned home from Vietnam to Seattle, which is often figuratively spat upon for being a hotbed of liberalism.

This book contains the Korean and Vietnam War novels that the first book paved the way for, and it does not disappoint as a panoramic tale tracing the history of war trauma and PTSD.

Taneski has skill at showing young men in the context of war, and this novel continues that saga.

—David Willson