Black World: Special Ops by Robert R. Rotruck

Robert R. Rotruck’s first novel, Black World: Special Ops (269 pp. $11.94, paper: $7.99, Kindle), stars Bill York, a former Navy SEAL and retired CIA agent. The book begins with a present-day scuffle with a few ruffians after a dinner date with his wife. Then we flash back to the back story of this mild-mannered family man.

York’s father, a Maryland State Trooper, knew someone who knew someone who secured him an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy despite non-stellar high school grades and “fitness reports.” Rotruck paints a quite realistic and detailed picture of student life at the Naval Academy, including some of the shenanigans of the budding naval leaders.

During his studies, York develops an interest in the SEALs, and eventually is selected as a candidate. Rotruck tells a credible story as we follow York through the training, and the fabled challenges involved in the training of some of America’s most prestigious and fearsome special operations fighters.

We accompany York on a deployment to Vietnam with Team One where he is injured in a diving accident, which prevents him from continuing as an active member of the team. He then decides to resign his commission, and winds up getting recruited by the CIA.

Again, we get a nicely detailed review of training, this time several CIA venues. York’s reputation as a leader and savvy operator grow, and he is given more complicated and dangerous missions.

Throughout, York’s wife knows he’s working for the government, but not a lot more. He leaves, comes back home, and is gone again. After one hair-raising mission he decides to retire.

This is an interesting book, although some of the dialogue is a bit stilted. This is a first novel and I hope to see Bill York again—either as a free-standing operative, or back with the CIA.

—Tom Werzyn

Searching for Gurney by Jack Estes

Jack Estes’ Searching for Gurney (O’Callahan Press, 328 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a welcome return to high-quality Vietnam War literary fiction. Estes served as a rifleman with the 9th Marines and later with a CAP unit during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of duty. He’s written two other books that deal with the war: A Field of Innocence (2014), a memoir, and a A Soldier’s Son (2016), a novel.

With Searching for Gurney’s first sentence—“JT woke, but they were still dead,”—the reader is immediately enmeshed in the world of a Vietnam War veteran’s post-traumatic stress. The veteran, JT, believes he should be able to handle his new civilian job because, Estes writes, “he’d led men into battle, run patrols, set ambushes, called in gunships, destroyed villages and hillsides. He’d fired rifles, machine guns, tossed grenades, and killed enemy soldiers so often that not killing felt odd. So this mailroom job was a skate.”

JT’s wife says he’s been different since he returned home from war. He never smiles and seems to carry a sense of danger with him. She “thought violence was when he punched a hole in the wall or broke a doorjamb,” Estes says. “That wasn’t violence.”

For his part, JT believes that no matter how much he and his wife fuss, God meant them to be together. “Why else would he have survived Vietnam?” Though he is too young to legally buy beer, he often goes to bars and drinks. After getting into fights, he thinks maybe “he’d be better off back in Nam.”

Coop served alongside JT. He’s back home just long enough to attend his grandfather’s funeral before he has to return to the war. While contemplating the funeral service, he thinks, “This wasn’t death. Death was that first patrol. This was sleep.” He also drinks in the morning so he won’t “stick a gun in his mouth.” And he’s glad to be going back because he “wanted war and didn’t care if he died. It was only when he felt at risk that he felt alive.”

Hawkeye completes the trio. He winds up in the Marines to avoid a jail sentence and quickly discovers in Vietnam that the “one thing you can always count on is that you can’t count on anything.” A fourth important character, Nguyen Vuong, joins the three Americans in the book’s third act.

The Vietnamese who are engaged in war with the Americans, Estes writes, believe they are fighting “in a great and noble cause that will be remembered until the end of time.” They read Shakespeare and share their poetry with each other.

Estes in country

The Americans pop amphetamines to stay alert, carry sawed-off shotguns, and live by the philosophy, “They say go. We go.”

They find peacefulness when they can “listen to the silence,” and are confused by the strangeness of hearing rumors of peace talks in the midst of fierce fighting.

In this extremely well-written, time-tangled story, the boyish-looking Lt. Gurney doesn’t make his appearance until the last few pages. He then quickly disappears. That triggers the search in the book’s title, and the plot wraps around itself in an intriguing and satisfying way.

Searching for Gurney doesn’t read like a comic book as so many war novels seem to. It conveys the impact of war through the lens of literary fiction. It’s also one of the few books I reread immediately after I finished it. 

Estes’ website is jackestes.com

–Bill McCloud

The Birdhouse Man by Rick DeStefanis

In Rick DeStefanis’ novel, The Birdhouse Man: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Story (360 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), an older veteran tell his Vietnam War story to a student working on a college project. DeStefanis served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72. The book is the latest novel in his Vietnam War Series.

In it, widower Sam Walker is selling his handmade birdhouses at a campus arts and crafts festival when he meets a student, Claire Cunningham, who tells him the military insignia on his cap is the same one her grandfather had worn. Her grandfather had recently died before he could help her with her senior thesis, which was going to be based mainly on his Vietnam War experiences. Sam seldom talked about the war, except when he had taught it at the college, and he never told anyone about his personal experiences. Still, he decides to help Clair finish the thesis, even though she wants the unfiltered truth of what he did, saw, and thought.

Sam tells her he had enlisted ahead of the draft, volunteered for OCS, then went to Airborne and Ranger School. He landed in Vietnam in late 1967 and noted that everything “outside the barbed wire appeared to be a land of poverty and filth.” He goes on to say that the Vietnamese countryside was “litter, naked children, rivers, and palm trees—sort of like paradise gone to hell.” He was amazed to see a “house made of beer cans.”

Sam eventually tells the young woman of combat so intense and close-up that his rifle was once pressed against the chest of an enemy soldier when he fired it. After a few sessions with her, his nightmares return. We then learn that Claire is trying to connect with her father who served in the Army in Iraq and is on the streets somewhere suffering from PTSD. As Sam continues his story and answers her questions, he decides to help Claire find her father.

In a way the main plot is a fantasy in which a grumpy old veteran finally decides to talk about the war, but only to a young female college student who is very attractive and, as Sam says, my “kind of woman.” While on the road searching for her father the two frequently share a hotel room. One morning they eat breakfast in the room with her wrapped only in a blanket. And, to round out the fantasy, Claire hangs on every word of Sam’s story.

On the other hand, everything turns out to be on the up and up, which seems plausible. Claire loved her grandfather and sees much of him in Sam.

I was impressed with how Rick DeStefanis spun out the various threads of this story in such a way that I never once thought things might come unraveled. He has created a great story of war and the human relationships that come together because of it.

His website is rickdestefanis.com

–Bill McCloud

War Paint by Brian Lehman

War Paint (LuLu Publishing, 288 pp. $31.52, hardcover; $18.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Brian Lehman is the rare book that lives up to the hype on its back cover. Yes, this book really is “a quirky thriller and a naval warfare story like no other from the Vietnam War.”

Lehman served aboard a destroyer during the Vietnam War. His quirky story takes place during the waning days of American combat in the war, in early 1972, when a U.S. destroyer is used as bait by an unhinged fleet commander while a secret group of North Vietnamese commandos are making plans to board and take control of the ship.

The story begins in the present day when Jeffs Ryder gets asked that dreaded question by his grandson: “Grandpa, you ever kill anyone in the war?” This causes Ryder to begin to recall the most dangerous period in his military experience.

In the first months of 1972 the war is winding down—at least from the American perspective although thousands of NVA troops were crossing the DMZ into South Vietnam. Having been given the choice by a judge of going to jail or joining the military, Ryder enlists in the Navy and soon finds himself aboard the Navy destroyer Rattano sailing to Vietnam.

The fictional Rattano is affectionately known by crewmembers as “The Rat.” The ship moves with “the swagger of an aging but still dangerous gunslinger and, like that aging gunslinger, they wore their guns out where everyone could see them,” as Lehman puts it. The Rat’s captain thought he already had made his final deployment, and welcomes his return to action as a “bonus.” He thinks of the assignment as taking an obsolete destroyer into an obsolete war.

Brian Lehman back in the day

The North Vietnamese are aware of the Rat and, in fact, it may be one of the American ships that they’ve placed a bounty on. But most of the NVA troops are hungry, existing on meager rations, and are using military equipment that in some cases once belonged to the French. Many of the young Vietnamese, like many men on the Rat, do not understand the politics of the war and just want the fighting to end so they can go home.

The chapters begin with entries that could be drawn from a chronology of the war or from letters back and forth between men serving and women waiting back home.

I greatly enjoyed this glimpse into one aspect of Navy life as the war was winding down, especially because my two younger brothers were sailors at the time. I like reading about destroyers and the different jobs men held while on-board. And I liked comparing Lehman’s enlisted men’s official conversations with what they said when no officers were around.

Brian Lehman has produced a fine novel with memorable characters and realistic dialogue. It will remain in my memory, especially sentences like this one: “As he drifted off to sleep he could hear the aft guns come to life, sounding very distant as they began to hurl round after round across the peaceful sea into the southern outskirts of what was left of the city.”

–Bill McCloud

The Girl to His Left by Stephen P. Learned

The Girl To His Left (Bermondsey Books, 318 pp. $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is an entertaining novel about the military and the antiwar movement in the Sixties written by Stephen P. Learned, who says he didn’t serve in the military or take part in the protests against the Vietnam War. Learned is a retired U.S. Justice Department trial attorney who has been a long-time volunteer at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

We meet the title character, Shawn, on the first page as she takes a seat next to Paul Bondra at a pizza place. It’s the spring of 1966 in Pittsburgh and the two strike up a conversation. Paul is about to join the Marines and they bond over the next month, deciding to write each other while he’s gone in hopes they can maintain their relationship. They promise to be faithful to each other. “As long as you’re alive,” Shawn tells Paul, “I’m yours. But don’t come back a different person.”

After his first military haircut Paul says he looks “like one of those Mormon guys who knock on your door.” With Paul on active duty, Shawn transfers to the University of Wisconsin and becomes involved in the antiwar movement. She keeps it a secret from most people that she has a boyfriend in the Marine Corps.

In February of 1967 Paul’s plane lands at DaNang and he is quickly bused to Hill 327. While he is setting up security and night ambushes, Shawn is engaged in antiwar activities, including attending draft card burnings.

Soon Paul finds himself in the thick of things. He “felt the change in pressure caused by bullets snapping overhead,” Learned writes, coming from the “nasty clap of a Russian SKS semi-automatic carbine.” Paul notes that an after-action search of a hamlet bombed by Americans uncovered dead bodies. “Bad guys, good guys, who knew?”

As a platoon leader, Paul decides he “wasn’t going to kill anyone until his men killed first. Sure, he was a killer. But his job was to lead killers, not be one.”

Stephen Learned

Paul learns that he can get an early out if he extends his tour in Vietnam for six months. He considers it, but remembers that Shawn made him promise he would return as soon as he could.

He writes to her, spelling out his reasons for extending. She writes back saying she’s completely opposed to the idea. What’s more, she suggests that if he does extend his tour it would be a selfish act and she would end their relationship.

As you would expect of a good novel—and this is a very good one—bigger-picture historical moments are personalized through the eyes of the characters. This gives the reader a better understanding of exactly what those events meant to those who lived through them.

–Bill McCloud

Elsewhere Than Vietnam by David Schwartz

Elsewhere Than Vietnam: A Story of the Sixties (261 pp. Sticky Earth, $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a quite enjoyable novel. The author, David Schwartz, served as a U.S. Army Czech language intelligence interrogator in Germany from 1969-72. The title comes from a 1971 Armed Forces Journal article by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. in which he wrote that the morale of U.S. troops in Vietnam was lower “than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” The colonel then added: “Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.”

It’s the “elsewhere” that this story is concerned with, mainly antiwar protests on college campuses and underground resistance in the active-duty military, both in the U.S. and on bases abroad.

Schwartz’s main character Steven Miller is a student at Yale University in 1968 and, along with all the other young men on campus and around the nation, he finds that he is constantly thinking about the military draft.

“We knew the war was wrong,” we learn from Miller, “and we didn’t want to be involved in it.” Before long, though, he loses his student deferment and receives a draft classification of I-A, fit for service. “Fit to shoot people,” Miller thinks, “and fit to be shot at in return, simply because their ideas were not our ideas.” He begins attending meetings on resisting the draft. And then he gets a letter to report for induction.

Miller realizes he’s not brave enough to flee to Canada and wonders if his new girlfriend will wait for him for a couple of years. At Fort Dix he passes the stockade and hears another GI say, “The Army had to invent something worse than Vietnam to get people to go there.”

He begins “learning how to soldier. The soldier was the opposite of the student. The student should engage in critical thinking; the soldier should not question what he is told.” Miller’s goal is to avoid being sent to Vietnam. So he agrees to extend his service time a year in exchange for being sent to the Army’s Czech language school. Whenever possible, he goes off base to a local coffeehouse, the headquarters of a local radical newspaper and the scene of frequent antiwar discussions.

Miller graduates from language school and is sent to Fort Holabird in Baltimore for interrogation training. Here he learns that “it is a misconception that you need a cruel streak to excel as an interrogator. You just need to be a good actor.” Nothing is said about physical torture.

Miller’s then shipped to Germany where he works on developing intelligence reports. A German girl tells him that Americans are always immediately recognizable because they “all walk around loose and relaxed, like cowboys.” He continues to lead a double life: being a good soldier on-base while getting involved in resistance activities outside the gates.

The subtitle, A Story of the Sixties, is certainly accurate and everything in this novel rings true. This is a book about an honorable, conflicted man who gives his body and mind to the military, but not his heart and soul. It is a good story about a good man.

–Bill McCloud

Berserkley by Robert Roth

Many years ago through a haze that wasn’t particularly atmospheric in nature or origin, someone said to me, “If you can stand there, flat-footed, and tell me you remember the Sixties, man, you weren’t really there.” Turns out he was correct, on several levels.

Speaking of the Sixties, Robert Roth’s novel, Berserkley (The Periphery Press, 620 pp. $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) begins and ends with the word “Unbelievable.” That just about describes this offering, which is constructed like a huge, feverish Jack Kerouac story—after being loosely introduced to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

There are no chapters, per se. Roth, instead, gives us lots of words, separated by rows of five asterisks. We move from scene to scene, with the breaks coming just when the reader needs to take a breath. A series of cinematic scenes dissolve as we wade through the story. What a rush!

Roth has very skillfully assembled a covey of characters right out of central casting who personify, almost eerily, every type that we had on the scene at UC Berkeley in the mid-nineteen sixties. We get the dweeb from Cleveland (our erstwhile protagonist); the drug-addled Vietnam veteran; the effete snob from a waspish New England family; the oblivious Santa Monica cutie; the self-hating Jewish restaurant owner; the Chicano wanna-be radical; the wide-eyed rural Nebraska farm boy; the grizzled, old, radical newspaper publisher; the kidnapped newspaper heiress; the Hare Krishna background singers; and a huge herd of supporting weirdos.

Throughout the book I read about little things here and there that I’d forgotten over the decades. And I found myself thinking, “Oh, yeah, I remember that.”

The story propels us through a time-warped narrative that seemingly is unanchored. Roth rarely bothers to mention a day or time as the story just seems to waft along—kind of like the ever-present cloud of pot smoke that was Berkeley in those days. Roth presents more fiction on the back-cover blurbs, including words from the late Truman Capote calling the novel “far superior to To Kill a Mockingbird.”

I began reading Beserkley with a bit of trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised. It offers up memories of the Sixties, along with the love, hate, and angst that went with them.

I strongly recommend it.

–Tom Werzyn

The Gopher King by Gojan Nikolich

Gojan Nikolich’s new novel, The Gopher King (Black Rose Writing, 358 pp. $20.95, paper $5.99, Kindle), is not quite Alice going down the rabbit hole chasing the White Rabbit. But a few chapters into the book and you might think it’s Coraline going down a gopher hole with an M16 on full auto and a K-Bar in her teeth.

The story centers around Stan Przewalski, a weekly newspaper publisher in Bull River Falls, Colorado. Stan suffers from a severe case of PTSD after surviving a hellacious tour of duty in the Vietnam War, and Nikolich—a U.S. Army veteran—paints a verbal portrait of PTSD suitable for hanging in any VA hospital.

Stan, like many veterans who experienced combat, came home with the demons of war firmly in control of his life. He soon depends on therapy and pills to keep those demons in check. The healing process for Stan materializes in the form of a gopher—and not just any gopher. He is the Gopher King. Soon, Stan and the Gopher King, appropriately named Chaz, embark on an odyssey of mutual self-exploration. Chaz is an anthropomorphic literary device Nikolich uses to deftly to probe the depth of Stan’s problems and alleviate his PTSD.

On a sightseeing trip to Vietnam, Stan realizes that he cannot be redeemed. But he also discovers that facing his fears and the hidden places in his mind amounts to true bravery. And that the times he allowed himself to suffer at the hands of his demons actually were opportunities to face his fears.

Nikolich effectively plumbs the depths of PTSD through the magical world he creates that Stan enters. It’s a world populated with camouflaged gophers toting M16s and fighting to save their homeland. It’s full of misunderstandings, meaninglessness, pompous characters, reminiscences without purpose, and characters who make absolutely no sense and are based on vanity and cluelessness.

The residents of Chaz and Stan’s world mainly just want to get by and survive and maybe have a good time. Their world isn’t actually that much different from the real world, although the real world may be less exaggerated with its arbitrary rules and adult nonsense, crookedness, cowardice, and sordidness. Still, it contains those traits in equal measure—and in many ways the cruelty of the real world is more incredible.

Gojan Nikolich

Nikolich’s writing style drew me in immediately. He ticked all the good-fiction boxes for me: a good story, entertaining and creative descriptions, and mesmerizing dialogue. To the extent that a good novel entertains and enlightens, The Gopher King masterfully achieves both goals.

Nikolich’s portrayal of the characters is realistically accomplished. The humor and the story could provoke unwanted memories for the initiated, but they also can be of tremendous educational value for those with little knowledge of PTSD.

I highly recommend putting a velveteen gopher on the desk of every VA shrink and The Gopher King on your reading list.

–Charles Templeton

Augie’s World by John H. Brown

John H. Brown’s Augie’s World (Black Rose Writing, 243 pp. $18.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is a tight little action and adventure story rooted in a sense of family and loyalty. Brown was drafted into the Army and served a 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty with the Americal Division. This book is a follow-up to his debut novel, Augie’s War.

After being drafted, main character Augie Cumpton winds up in Vietnam where he loses three good buddies in combat, sees another one permanently desert, and learns about a senior NCO being murdered by one of his men. Augie returns home in 1970 and is soon discharged. He develops PTSD, though it won’t be officially diagnosed for ten years. In the meantime, he self-medicates with alcohol and drugs.

Augie was raised in an extended Italian-American family, which he returns to, with dreams of studying English literature and becoming a teacher. Food is important to this family as are the rituals around preparing it and family dining. Memories of such family gatherings sustain Augie during some of his most difficult times. Brown includes eight pages of family recipes at the back of the book for such things as stuffed artichokes and pasta marinara.

While working in the family business Augie gets involved in a deadly encounter with Mafia members over what they called “insurance” for the small business. Augie is forced to leave town, taking with him his old Army .45 caliber pistol. With the Mob hot on his heels he attempts to go into hiding. But when members of his family are threatened, he realizes he should come home and deal with the problem. He’s not John Rambo, though, and needs the help of family members to end the threat.

There is a really cool, nearly mystical, character who helps Augie, but it needs to be said that Brown includes quite a bit of almost casual violence and threats of such throughout the book.

John H. Brown

There are more than forty chapters that alternate between first and third person. Brown does a great job in moving the story along through chapters titled “Welcome Home,” “To the Moon,” “Bad News,” “Circle the Wagons,” and “Escalation.”

I encountered two hiccups in the book. One involves a returning soldier being spat on at an airport, which we know is a myth. Since this is fiction, an author is free to use artistic license—but it’s not right to perpetuate that myth.

Brown also writes that “four student protestors” were killed by Ohio State National Guard troops in May 1970 at Kent State University. It’s important to note that two of the four murdered students were not protesting anything; they were walking between classes at a distance of more than 380 feet from the shooters when they were gunned down.

I was interested in seeing how this story turned out. Brown kept me reading. I found the ending to be far-fetched, but that didn’t ruin the book, which overall I enjoyed.

The author’s website is  wordsbyjohnbrown.com

–Bill McCloud

There It Is by Ken Harper

Ken Harper, a veteran of the Vietnam War, wrote two novels prior to his death in 2018. His wife was determined to get them published. After reading his first one, the mostly light-hearted, humorous There It Is (Luminare Press, 533 pp. $37, hardcover; $25, paper; $5, Kindle), I greatly look forward to the publication of the second novel in 2021.

Harper’s main character, Farragut Birdwell, tells his story in a self-aware, sarcastic, smart-ass manner. One of the delights of the novel is seeing Birdwell mature during his year in the Vietnam War.

Birdwell grew up in Baltimore. When he joined the Army he ended up being assigned to Fort Holabird, the home of the Army Intelligence Center, in his hometown.

Birdwell gets permission to start up a boxing club at Holabird, which he hopes will allow him to avoid “Saturday morning shit details.” When he tells his World War II Navy vet father about his pugilistic plan the only advice he receives is, “Hit more, get hit less.”

Birdwell spends off-duty time at an off-base coffeehouse, smoking weed and listening to literary discussions. Knowing he would likely be shipped to Vietnam, a buddy’s girlfriend says he should “go to Canada and avoid the whole shitaree.” Another buddy refers to Birdwell’s likely eventual destination as “Viet-fucking-death-comes-knocking-Nam.”

His job at Holabird involves doing background checks for security clearances. He gets pulled into some illegal activities, which result in him getting orders for Vietnam. It’s nearly the half-way point of the book when Birdwel larrives in country at a unit in Saigon that he’s told is “so far from the shit we can’t even smell it.” Before long, though, he’s sent into the field. At his new location he sleeps fully clothed at night, his rifle at arm’s reach.

Birdwell is not sure how encouraging an early letter from his father is when it says he should remember that “no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse.” Indeed, Birdwell ends up getting wounded in action. His job is coordinating intelligence, and he spends time gathering information on troop locations, friendly and non-friendly. He works a lot with maps until an officer tells him, “The map is never the territory—to know the territory means remaking the map. Which means we’re going into the territory.”

Ken Harper

Harper includes several jarring incidents of extreme violence that stand out from the way most of the rest of the book is written. That’s appropriate, as violent acts can often lead to a sense of shock, which seems to be what’s happening here.

Not only is Birdwell telling this story, but several times he lets the reader get into his mind. In those cases we read short chapters then immediately learn that what we just read didn’t actually happen. Apparently they were merely fleeting thoughts in his head. That makes for a wild ride.

This book is fun to read, with a chuckle on page after page. Even some of the darker moments are treated with humor because if we don’t laugh at them we might just go crazy.

Or, as we often said during the war: There it is.

The book’s website is harperthereitis.com

–Bill McCloud