There Comes a Time by Jack Nolan

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Jack Nolan’s novel, There Comes a Time (Stillwater River, 306 pp. $16, paper; $7.99, Kindle), deals with the exploits of a group of men who refer to themselves as “The Greyhawk Six.” The guys trained together at fictional Fort Greyhawk Intelligence School and arrived together in Vietnam in September 1967 in Army intel. Nolan himself did a tour of duty in Army intelligence in the war.

The men wear civilian clothes and work different types of special operations, functioning as soldier-spies. A lot of their work involves typing and filing, but some sometimes they get involved in matters the CIA is supposed to be doing.

The sequel to his 2018 novel, Vietnam Remix, this is a tale of agents and double-agents. One of the men uses a cover in which he’s an employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. He also has a different, phony photo-ID and paperwork in case he needs an escape cover.

The nine chapters in this book are written as if they were individual short stories. Most could stand on their own. That includes the chapter involving one of the men who, after having his life saved, undergoes a religious transformation. It’s reminiscent of something that could have been in Catch-22.

The characters do not get involved in jungle fighting, though one survives being in a Jeep “shot to pieces,” and another witnesses a friend being shot and killed. The men frequently take Vietnamese mistresses, some in their early teens. As Nolan puts it: “In the pseudo-military realm of civilian-cover Intelligence, cohabitation with a Vietnamese woman was forbidden and, also, not uncommon.”

One of the men uses a position with the Catholic Church as his cover. Another opens an office supply store. All of them end up loving some of the Vietnamese people they come into contact with, hating others, and fearing a few.

Most of the story takes place around a fictional Military Intelligence Company’s headquarters in Saigon and at a big field station in the coastal city of Vung Tau, which Nolan describes as a “place that was immune to war by virtue of being a narrow peninsula surrounded by warships.” One of the men, upon returning home, continues to dream of the “pretty girls on the beach at Vung Tau.”

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Jack Nolan in-country

The plot also includes Vietnamese twin brothers who chose different sides in the war, but continue to love each other. In many ways, they represent the history of the divided people of their country.

This is a dense novel—not in page numbers, but in the depth of the story. It is not an action-adventure pulp-ish war novel. Written more in the style of Graham Greene, There Comes A Time was a joy to read.

–Bill McCloud

A Wolf by the Ears by Wayne Karlin

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I’ve lost count of the number of Vietnam War-themed novels I’ve read. On the other hand, I don’t believe I’d ever read a War of 1812 novel until now, having just finished A Wolf by the Ears (University of Massachusetts Press, 320 pp. $22.95, paper and Kindle), a compelling, well-crafted tale by Wayne Karlin.

In this exceptional book—a 2019 winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction—Karlin deftly weaves the fictional story of escaped enslaved people from Southern Maryland into a key part of the 1812-15 war: British Adm. George Cockburn’s raids along the Chesapeake Bay. That series of events culminated with the August 1814 Battle of Bladensburg, the burning of Washington, D.C., and the tide-turning Battle of Baltimore in September.

This book is filled with memorable characters—real and imagined. The star of the show is the unlikely named Towerhill, a smart, driven young man who devises a plan to deliver a group of fellow enslaved African Americans into the arms of the British. After a dangerous, eventful escape, Towerhill becomes a sergeant in the Royal Marines.

He leads his men (and several women) in action as part of Royal Navy and Marine forces that wreaked havoc on slave-holding Southern Maryland plantations, then defeated a ragtag group of militia at Bladensburg just outside Washington. Then came the British move into Washington, replete with the infamous burning and looting of the White House, the Congressional Library and other government buildings, and then the events in Baltimore Harbor.

Karlin does an exceptional job recreating the action at Bladensburg, Washington, and Baltimore from the British point of view. That includes an evocative, well-rendered look at the fighting on land at North Point outside Baltimore during which the flamboyant British general Robert Ross was shot off his horse and killed, as well as the massive bombardment of Fort McHenry of Francis Scott Key and “Star-Spangled Banner” fame. And the fateful decision by the British commander, Adm. Thomas Cochrane, to order a withdrawal from Baltimore Harbor in the early hours of September 14.

Karlin—who served as a Marine Corps helicopter door gunner in the Vietnam War—has written seven novels, nearly all of them dealing in some way with that war. That includes Lost Armies, one of the best literary treatments of the Vietnam War’s psychological aftermath.

A Wolf by the Ears has nothing to do with that conflict. But in this book Karlin shows that he also can evocatively and effectively write about a long-ago war and the institution of slavery. He draws a brilliant and forceful portrait of plantation life in Southern Maryland in the early 19th century. It’s not a pretty picture. There is violence and psychological abuse aplenty, which Karlin describes in detail throughout the book. That’s also true with the battle scenes. That is to his credit as no one benefits from sanitized fictional portrayals of war or slavery.

The book’s title—from an 1820 quote by Thomas Jefferson on slavery—is a theme throughout. “We can neither hold him, nor let him safely go,” Jefferson wrote about enslaved African Americans. Karlin shows the truth of those words as he presents the life-altering, wrenching decisions that enslaved people in Southern Maryland went through before choosing to join the British. And what they metaphorically became once they began actively fighting their former masters—and other Americans.

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Wayne Karlin

Here’s Karlin’s typically lyrical prose evoking Towerhill’s thoughts as he is about to order his men into battle, former slaves sharply dressed in redcoat British uniforms and armed with Baker rifles with “two foot long bayonets.”

The company, he writes, “looks as sharp and dangerous as those bayonets. Something swells in him. A short time ago, these fighters had been stooped, shuffling wraiths, shadows of men, their rebellious, free natures expressed only in furtive mutters, the subtle camouflage of song and the equally subtle ways in which they would sabotage their labor, a sharp clandestine mockery of their masters. Now they are wolves. His people.”

–Marc Leepson

VVA Veteran Arts Editor Marc Leepson’s profile of Wayne Karlin appeared in the July/August 2005 print issue—just before Karlin received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award at that summer’s Vietnam Veterans of America National Convention.

On Thunder Road by Michael Alan Shapiro

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At the beginning of Michael Alan Shapiro’s autobiographical novel, On Thunder Road (325 pp., Booklocker.com $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), main character Paul Gebhart volunteers for the draft in 1967 “to prove my manhood to the guys in the neighborhood. It was a stupid thing to do.” Having been “raised on war movies,” this New Jersey boy leaves home to receive training at Fort Carson and Fort Riley.

The last thing his father tells him before he leaves for Vietnam is, “Be smart over there and write your mother.” As the plane lifts off, a clock begins ticking in Paul’s mind as the countdown for his one-year tour of duty begins.

Arriving in-country in late 1967 he reports to Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 10th Infantry, in the Army’s First Infantry Division just outside Long Binh. He is immediately told: “You’re going to see some action with this unit.” Bravo Company is charged with helping keep Thunder Road open. That’s what GIs called Highway 13, which was used by most vehicles heading west out of Saigon.

Assigned to a mortar unit, he begins regularly smoking marijuana, and quickly learns that he is fighting alongside several guys who had been in trouble with the law and were given a choice between joining the Army or going to prison.

The daily routine for Paul Gebhart and his fellow soldiers includes morning patrols to sweep the roads for landmines. In the afternoon, they patrol through wooded areas and practice with the mortars. At night there’s perimeter duty. Pot smoking is part of the routine.

On one occasion outside the perimeter Paul experiences a mystical sense of being a part of a brotherhood with men who fought in the American Civil War and with Roman soldiers two thousand years ago, as well as with those who took part in the Crusades.  

He learns to cut a slit in his green towel and wear it like a Mexican serape to help keep the sun off his shoulders. He also learns what it means when you see sandals that have been melted into a blackened, scorched piece of earth.

As the year rolls over into early 1968 Paul hears rumors about guys who’ve dropped acid and walked off into the jungle to make peace with the enemy. But, at the same time, he also hears rumors about guys who would pay to walk point for someone else because they want all the action they can get.

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Big Red One troops on patrol

At base camp the troops continue to smoke dope. Word is that officers several steps up the chain of command are aware of that illegal activity, but allow it because when it comes time to fight the men fight.

Moving through the summer months, Paul Gebhart learns that “getting short is all about being scared.”

In this novel Michael Shapiro does a great job describing how the war changes his main character in ways that we know will make it difficult for him to escape his memories of the war after he comes home. This is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

–Bill McCloud

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

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

Executive Order 14900  by Gary A. Keel

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Gary Keel joined the U.S. Army, served in the Vietnam War, came home, and went on to a long career with federal government. His first novel, Executive Order 14900 (Aperture Press, 267 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is a political tale with a shadow over it. In the book, President Jerome Elliott is elected with overwhelming support from the American people. But  he loses that support following a series of bad decisions on his part—and suspicions about his motives.

Things get so bad that thirty-four governors call for a constitutional convention to reform the federal government and the Elliott fears he is losing control. So he orders the 82nd Airborne Division to march on the convention and arrest the participants for being domestic insurgents.

The Georgia National Guard, however, mobilizes to stop this from happening. The two military forces clash in the small town of Madison. The entire country threatens to erupt into violence. Television reporters Nicole Marcel and Luke Harper race to uncover the truth behind President Elliot’s actions and expose his past.

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Gary Keel

As the publisher notes, “if the dark truths are realized, they risk sundering the very fabric of American democracy.”

This is scary stuff, indeed. Gary Keel has produced yet another political thriller that seems fated to be made into an exciting movie—one I can hardly wait to see.

The novel is well-written. The characters are interesting and the plot moves right along.

I recommend it to all political thriller fans.

The author’s website is garyakeelauthor.com

–David Willson

The Morpheus Conspiracy by Douglas Volk

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Douglas Volk’s novel, The Morpheus Conspiracy (DanJon Publications, 470 pp. $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is a great work of terrifying horror and unrelenting suspense. As I read it, I kept waiting to see if the story was going to fall apart. It never did.

The book begins with a mysterious incident that takes place in South Vietnam in late 1970. The story then moves to Atlanta and Boston during the months of the Watergate scandal.

After coming home, the main character David Collier literally wears his Vietnam War experience on his face. Massively disfigured in a fire during the war, he grows his hair long to conceal that part of his face, except for times when he chooses to reveal it. With an eye that never closes because the lid was burned away, he is reminded of what he went through every time he looks in a mirror. And he becomes driven by feelings of betrayal.

Collier believes he was betrayed by the Army, by his nation, and by his girlfriend who ended their relationship when he came home from Vietnam. Laura Resnick has her own reasons for splitting from him, but Collier is sure it’s because of what happened to his face.

Collier dreams about getting back at her, and it turns out that he seems to have the ability to cause her to have horrendous nightmares. And not just her, because he can also enter the dreams of other people he believes have offended him and bring harm to them.

Other characters include a VA doctor and a scientist with an interest in sleep disorders. They are ultimately brought together with Collier and Resnick in a story written in such a way that you can almost see and feel four solid walls closing in on them. Though much of the story takes place in a broad and wide dreamscape, it’s ultimately a very claustrophobic tale.

Frequently while reading. I found myself picturing the text in images like you would see in a graphic novel. I mean it as a compliment when I say this book would make a great graphic novel.

The Morpheus Conspiracy can be read on a few different levels: as entertainment, as psychological drama, and as an example—though greatly exaggerated—of what the Vietnam War did to the nation and to many of us who served in it.

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Douglas Volk

My favorite quote from the book is when Collier recalls a buddy who died in front of him: “He was history. He was the history of the Vietnam War.” What a great way to commemorate each death in that war. And those deaths are horror enough for this world.

This is a thrilling read and one of my favorite books of the year.

The author’s website is www.themorpheusseries.com

–Bill McCloud

Editor’s note: Douglas Volk, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1970-76, is an life member of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America. He is donating one dollar from the sale of each book to VVA.