Hyperventilated Underwater Blues by Bob Calverley

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Bob Calverley was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1967 and served a 1968-69 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh. His first novel, Purple Sunshine, which we reviewed on these pages, is set in Vietnam and back home. His unusual second novel, Hyperventilated Underwater Blues (Amazon Digital, 338 pp., $4.99, Kindle), is a murder mystery set entirely in the U.S.A. with a few mentions of the military and the Vietnam War.

The book’s hero is a guy named Rick Short. Rick happens to be short, but he is also a swimmer, which makes his height unimportant. The book is a mixture of fantasy and reality and it is difficult to figure where one stops and the other picks up.

This the first book in which I read that a tour in Vietnam could bring back childhood stuttering. At least, I think that was the claim.

“I stuttered when I was a kid, but I mostly got over it until I almost got killed by a rocket in ‘Nam,” a character says. “Killed a guy who was talking to me. Got hit in the head by a big piece of shrapnel when he was right in the middle of a sentence. All I got was a few pieces in my arm. Minor shit, but my stuttering came back. Worse than when I was a kid.”

A teen-aged girl swimmer is murdered, drowned on her 18th birthday. That’s what this book is about. If you are a fan of university swimming, the book will hold more interest for you. Much of the book takes place in or near an aquatic center, and that’s fine with me.

This isn’t the usual Vietnam War-influenced book populated by mosquitoes and leeches. In fact, the book gets nowhere near Vietnam. It’s a nice change of pace. Thanks go to Bob Calverley for that.

The author took up masters swimming when his knees gave out from running cross country, so he appreciates a change of pace. Most of us do.

As someone said, variety is the spice of life.  This book provides that needed variety.

The author’s website is bobcalverley.com

—David Willson

Each One a Hero by Michael March

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Michael March served with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam from July 1967 to July 1968. In his autobiographical Vietnam War novel, Each One a Hero: A Novel of War and Brotherhood (Hellgate Press, 316 pp., $19.95, paper), the main character, a college drop out who gets drafted into the Army, spends time driving an APC just like the main character does in Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters, one of the best early (1977) Vietnam War novels.

Each One A Hero gives no challenge to Close Quarters, but it is a worthy effort. The reader encounters the notion that the VC fight their war by arming whores with razor blades in their vaginas. It also asks the question, “Why don’t they give up?” as they are hopelessly out-manned and outclassed, or so the Americans seem to think. Certainly the results of the U.S. body counts seemed to indicate so.

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Michael March

Ann Margaret, Annette Funicello, the Freedom Bird, Woody Woodpecker, and a lot of the usual American pop culture stuff we find in Vietnam War novels gets name checked in this book. The Tet Offensive and the Light at the End of the Tunnel get a workout, too. Magical realism even rears its head, along with Buddy Knox and his great fifties rock and roll song “Party Doll.”

Each One a Hero is well written and is a quick read. The hero returns from his Bangkok sex-capades with his “dick hurting like a bastard.” He was singing the blues right out of “House of the Rising Sun.” That makes me glad I chose not to take my R&R in Thailand.

There is some humor in this book, but it’s hard to laugh at the hero’s predicament as he prepares to return home. I’m sure he figured it out.

—David Willson

Forgotten by Marc Liebman

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Marc Liebman received his Navy commission in 1968, and became an aviator the following year. He retired as a Captain after serving for twenty-four years in the Navy. His military career took him all over the world, and included service in the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. During that time he also worked with the armed forces of Australia, Canada, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, and with the British Royal Navy.

His novel, Forgotten (Deeds, 594 pp., $25.57, paper), deals with six men who did not come home when the North Vietnamese returned the American POWs in 1973. The men had never been reported as POWs, but were listed as missing in action. The Vietnamese, in the person of NVA Lt. Col. Pham, use the Americans as laborers in a heroin factory. The colonel’s goal is to keep the men alive and ransom them for millions.

Back in the U.S., Janet, the wife of one of the POWs, is an strident antiwar activist. She fills her waiting time and sexual needs by becoming a highly paid assassin, taking on high-value targets around the world.

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Marc Liebman

Often this book read like a pop culture inventory. Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Sam Peckinpah, The Bridge over the River Kwai, Almond Joy, SDS, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rolex, Carlos Hathcock (the famed Vietnam War sniper) get more than a mention.

This is a giant whopper of a sex thriller with violence and bloodshed on most pages, along with that nymphomanical ex-antiwar activist turned assassin. If you love books like this, it’s the one is for you. It is predictable, however, as I was not surprised when Janet, the hit woman, was contracted to kill her own husband.

Forgotten is well written and held this reader’s attention throughout.

—David Willson

The Last of the Annamese by Tom Glenn

 

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Tom Glenn’s The Last of the Annamese (Naval Institute Press, 336 pp., $29.95) is a love story. It is not a sentimental love story, nor is it a soap opera. It is a clear story of the last days of South Vietnam—a story of the love between individuals and love for a dying country.

The main thread is an affair between an American, Chuck Griffith, and an aristocratic Vietnamese woman, Tuyet, who is married to a disfigured peasant who has the noblest heart of all the characters. But the background story is of the Vietnam War after most of American troops have left. It is about Amerasian children left behind in orphanages, Vietnamese women who do not know what has happened to their husbands, the American troops who try to tell the truth of what is happening. Whether the U.S. government cares about the truth is unclear; are the Americans in charge deaf, or do they wish to disrupt any evacuations?

The novel begins calmly with the meeting of the two protagonists and progresses to fear and panic as South Vietnam begins to unravel. It is the mark of a fine writer that you cannot tell how he does this without changing his style, but the message is undeniably clear: South Vietnam is falling and failing, and people are trying to survive.

Against the panic of being overrun, Glenn conveys the peaceful heart and philosophies of one man, the courageous South Vietnamese Army officer who is married to Tuyet. Thanh evolves into the strongest, most compassionate, dauntless character in the book. Against all odds, he comes to embody the heart of the Buddha in a way that suggests that the people in the South will endure and survive whatever horrors await.

Glenn’s writing is clear and calm and remains so throughout the book. And yet, toward the end, as Saigon is being bombed and people are dying, there is an urgency to everything. The calm of the rest of the book reflects the way people ignored what was really going on. When confronted with bombs, attacks, and the advancing enemy, the urgency and human panic comes through loud and clear.

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Tom Glenn

Every character is painted with only a few strokes with such talent that you know these people, or think you do. And yet, none are clichéd or simple. You can smell the fish sauce, the streets, the flowers, the air. You can feel the black smoke from crashing planes, the humidity of the place, the darkness of the interiors, the whisper of silk ao dais.

You can feel the grief of all that is lost, but it is never a grief too heavy to read. In a Shakespearean way, the heavy emotion is off stage, implied with subtle writing. Glenn describes emotions that his characters go through, but he does so with spare strokes and thorough knowledge. Above all, this beautiful book shows that the trauma of war is the great equalizer for those directly involved.

Tom Glenn spent thirteen years as an undercover NSA employee working on covert operations in Vietnam, and escaped when the North Vietnamese took Saigon in May of 1975.  We reviewed his novels The Trion Syndrome and Friendly Casualties on these pages in 2015 and 2016.

—Loana Hoylman

Phoenix Mistress by Frank Wadleigh

 

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Frank Wadleigh’s Phoenix Mistress (iUniverse, 208 pp., $24.95; $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is written in the first person, but the book is a novel and the characters are fictional—except for famous people. The book takes place in Saigon in 1969-71, which is when the author worked as a senior intelligence analyst at MACV on the controversial Phoenix pacification program. All of the details in the book on Phoenix, Wadleigh says, are true.

Often the book reads more like a memoir than a novel, but that is not unusual for books of this sort. The main character, a computer scientist, is assigned the job of investigating the effectiveness of the Phoenix Program. He is shocked that innocent civilians are targeted and tortured. He protests and when those protests are ignored, he faces a moral dilemma.

Then he meets the title character.  She is pictured on the cover of the book.

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Frank Wadleigh

This novel is engrossing and well-written. As this is a historical novel, expect to come across a lot of facts and names. I recommend it to those who wish to read a book about this particular aspect of the non-combat side of the Vietnam War.

Wadleigh tell us he was “directly involved in the Pacification program headed by William Colby who became CIA Director after the war.” So he knows what he is writing about.

—David Willson

 

The Big Buddha Bicycle Race by Terence A. Harkin

Terence A. Harkin’s The Big Buddha Bicycle Race (Silkworm Books, 446 pp., $6.99, Kindle) and its sequel, In the Year of the Rabbit, are set in Ubon, Thailand, where Harkin served with the U.S. Air Force’s AAVS Detachment 3 during the Vietnam War. He’s currently at work on his third novel, Tinseltown Two-Step, set in Los Angeles and Chiang Mai. Harkin, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, spent twenty-five years as a Hollywood cameraman. His time in the Air Force well prepared him for that job.

Big Buddha is a work of fiction, but it often reads like a memoir of Harkin’s time in Thailand. He titles the book’s segment with dates such as “April 1970-March 1970,” and provides detailed place names, such as the 136th Photo Squadron at Norton Air Force Base, California, HQ of the Aerospace-Audio Base, California, Acronym AAVS, pronounced “Avis” in Air Force speak.

The main character, Airman Leary, failed to read his USAF enlistment contract closely, overlooking the words “Needs of the Air Force,” so he ended up closer to the war than his recruiting sergeant said he would. As a result, the reader learns a lot about the real-life duties and experiences of airmen in a photo squadron.

Airman Leary, a cameraman with the 601st Photo Squadron in Ubon, decides that it is a propitious time to put on a bicycle race “to keep up unit morale” because Nixon and Kissinger are going to visit. A bicycle race of “lovable Americans riding through the countryside to win Thai hearts and minds” would send a message to the world when featured in Life magazine and Stars & Stripes.

There is some resistance from the North Vietnamese 599th Transportation Group so things don’t go quite as planned. It turns out that the race didn’t work well as a celebration of the war winding down—or, more accurately, as the war began to fail to wind down as promised. Where is that light at the end of the tunnel?  Let’s pedal our asses toward it as hard as we can and see what happens.

Harkin has come up with an enjoyable read. The book, however, offers more information about the workings of a Photo Squadron in Southeast Asia than any of us will ever need. Or want. We get some of the same popular culture references we’d expect from such a novel: John Wayne westerns, John Ford, Babe Ruth, and Muhammad Ali. But there also are some not so likely ones:  Harmon Killebrew, Pinkie Lee, Guy Lombardo, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Suzy Wong, Wilfred Owens war poems and The Anderson Platoon. 

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Terry Harkin

This is a perfect book for a movie lover to read if he also wishes to get credit for reading a book about our war in Southeast Asia. Did I mention that Airman Leary is a white kid from the Boston suburbs who is a drummer in a band and that he loves the music of Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and Sam Cooke?

That adds a layer of cultural meaning to the book. Probably the one thing this book does not need is another layer of cultural meaning. Consider it a bonus.

The author’s website is http://www.taharkin.net

—David Willson

A Long Healing Come Slowly by Jim Carmichael

 

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Jim Carmichael is a Marine who served a combat-heavy thirteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967-68. He survived the 1968 Tet Offensive and spent seventy-seven days at Khe Sanh. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1997. A Long Healing Come Slowly: A Novel about PTSD and its Effects on Suffering Individuals and their Families (LifeRich, 536 pp., $44.95, hardcover; $33.99, paper) is his Carmichael’s first novel. He intends to write a sequel.

The Preface describes this book as a fast read which it really is not. It is a large book that gives the history of multiple generations of a family with much involvement in America’s wars.  Also, the book has some axes to grind. For instance, the author claims that “This country is also rapidly outlawing the mention or open display of God or his Law.”  If our country has, I’ve failed to take notice of it.

In a nutshell, this novel, Carmichael tell us, is about “a family living with a veteran who has PTSD.” That is no lie, and the author totally nails what that is like, missing no nuance in describing it. He traces the origins through multiple wars as the book’s veteran characters are still alive and involved in the family. Novelists have that control.

The veterans in this novel have experienced and survived, sort of, the worst of America’s modern wars, including the Bataan Death March, and they are available and willing to testify about their trauma. Spoiler alert: I was shocked when the novelist killed off his main character. I sat and pondered and reread the chapter to make sure that it really happened. First time for me to get hit with that in a Vietnam War novel. A member of the Greatest Generation shoots himself with his pistol.

He was one of those veterans who came back from World War II and chose to work his demons to death by making a good life for his family. I am familiar with that method as that was how my father dealt with his Iwo Jima Marine Corps demons. Repression and demanding control and a smooth peaceful life. Until his war came home. His wife thought the war was over. But was it?

111111111111111111111111111111111111This novel makes the point that the war is never over. The military was not into anger management, so veterans had no idea what to do about their anger. Then the real cost of war becomes apparent. And often veterans are thrown to the wolves.

Prison is full of them. So are cemeteries.

This is an engrossing novel and I look forward to the sequel, which will, I hope, address the many loose ends left hanging at the end of this book.

Carmichael has done a superb job of showing how a veteran with PTSD can masquerade as a perfect family man, and how his cover can get blown by a disturbing incident and knock the whole apple cart of a perfect American family totally out of kilter.

Read this book and weep. I did.

The author’s website is alonghealing.com

—David Willson