The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

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Matthew Quick is best known for his big-selling 2008 novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, and the even bigger Hollywood movie it spawned in 2012. The book and film received generally positive reviews. More than one critic, however, has pointed out that the plot—about a young man overcoming mental illness—strains credibility (to the breaking point) and the characters bear little resemblance to real human beings.

In his new novel, The Reason You’re Alive (Harper, 240 pp., $25.99, Quick again deals with a main character with serious mental problems. The reason you’re reading this review on this web page is that the character is a Vietnam War veteran.  Said veteran is “an opinionated and good-hearted American patriot fighting like hell to stay true to his red, white and blue heart,” Quick’s publisher says, “even as the country he loves rapidly changes in ways he doesn’t always like or understand.”

There’s little doubt the guy (who narrates the story) is opinionated and patriotic. But good-hearted? I couldn’t get that word out of my mind as I read page after page after page of the veteran spouting anything but “good-hearted” words. For example, throughout the book he refers to Vietnamese as “gooks” and “little yellow” people. Doctors are “fucking moron[s] and nurses are “cold bitch[es].”

I guess some of this crude, offensive spouting off can be classified as “opinionated.” And I am sure there are people who agree with some or all of this. But why center a novel on a character who is a mean-spirted, bigoted, misogynist, racist boor?

Some reviewers (and the publisher) talk about the humor in the book. Perhaps some of this Archie-Bunker stuff tickles some people’s funny bones. But I didn’t find anything close to humor on one page of the novel.

Another distressing aspect of the book is Quick’s ultra-clichéd depiction of his central character. The guy is little more than a one-dimensional stereotype: a mentally unbalanced, cammie-wearing, gun-loving Nam vet haunted by the dozens of men, women, and children he offed in the war. How do we know this? Quick has the guy conveniently tell us that he and his buddies “did things you can’t even imagine” in Vietnam, killing maybe “hundreds of gooks,” many of them civilians, and “burning so many villages.”

Then there are the credibility-stretching plot details, including the fact that the narrator somehow amassed a fortune in the world of finance after the war and his best friend in a multi-billionaire. And that in Vietnam the guy is ordered to “break” a fellow grunt, an American Indian, who scalped dead enemy soldiers and kept them on his belt. He “breaks” the guy by humiliating him in front of the platoon, forcing him to crawl all but naked on the ground and pick up cigarette butts with his teeth.

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Mathew Quick

Spoiler alert: The book’s penultimate extended scene is another piece of preposterousness: a meeting arranged by the vet’s billionaire friend with the guy he “broke” at the latter’s mansion in Vegas. All goes swimmingly well—including what’s meant to be a shocking disclosure but is lamely predictable.

Before reading this book, I had thought that the tired, stereotypical image of the Vietnam veteran as a one-time merciless killing machine turned mentally damaged and violently dangerous was a thing of the past. Sad to say, its alive (and not well) in this book.

—Marc Leepson

Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis

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Raeford’s MVP (CreateSpace, 452 pp., 16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third Vietnam War-themed novel by Rick DeStefanis, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72.  We reviewed the previous books—Melody Hill and The Gomorrah Principle on these pages.

This book focuses on Billy Coker, who is 19 years old and erving in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the war. He left behind the love of his life, the chubby Bonnie Jo Parker, in Raeford, Mississippi. Bonnie happens to have an amazing voice and a pretty face, the way many big girls in small American towns do.  She gives him a good luck piece to wear. Spoiler alert: It does the trick.

When Billy arrives back home, he struggles with psychological problems and with connecting with his old friends. Some of his best friends make an effort to help him, a very good thing.

But the war becomes Billy’s life and he has a terrible problem shaking it off. The fog of battle gets a mention. So does John Wayne.  And Puff the Magic Dragon. Agent Orange is not ignored.

Billy finds a honkytonk that has an “old Son House tune on the jukebox.”  I would love to find that place. I’ve never encountered Son House on a jukebox.  Wilson Pickett sings “Land of a 1000 Dances,” and Jane Fonda gets kicked around years before she takes her trip to North Vietnam.

DeStefanis has written an honorable book that will hold most readers’ attention.

The author’s website is rickdestefanis.com

—David Willson

Melody Hill by Rick DeStefanis

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Rick DeStefanis served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne from 1970-72.  He brings his military experiences as a paratrooper and infantry light weapons specialist to every page of his novel, Melody Hill (CreateSpace, 364 pp., paper; Kindle), a prequel to his award-winning The Gomorrah Principle).

Duff Coleridge leaves behind Melody Hill, Tennessee, when he joins the Army and heads to Vietnam. While in country, he somehow manages to stumble into the shadow warrior realms and gets involved in black ops. A beautiful woman is, of course, involved. And naturally she is half French and speaks perfect English.

Does she really love Duff, or is she just using him to get information for her own devious purposes? Duff’s immediate boss seems to be as crooked and untrustworthy as possible, and Duff seems headed for an early grave in the jungles of South Vietnam.

Duff’s boss, codenamed Spartan, is dealing black market arms to the VC, and that is not even the worst of his sins. Duff, however, can’t get to the bottom of it all without placing himself at ultimate risk. Will he carry on, expose Spartan, and get the girl, or will he end up dead in a water-soaked ditch with a bullet in his head? You might be surprised at the answer.

If you read and enjoyed The Gomorrah Principle, this book will be right up your alley.  John Wayne gets two mentions, but Rick DeStafanis is much more interested in pop songs such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Moon River,” and “Sea of Love” than in 1950s cowboy movie stars. Which is refreshing.

The author’s website is http://rickdestefanis.com/vietnam-war-novel-melody-hill

—David Willson

The Discharge by Gary Reilly

Gary Reilly died in 2011. He left behind a treasure trove of unpublished novels. Among those is a trilogy which relates to his military service. Reilly’s protagonist in that trilogy is named Pvt. Palmer. In the first novel, Palmer is drafted and trained to be a military policeman.  In the second, The Detachment, Palmer serves his year in Southeast Asia.

In the recently published The Discharge (Running Meter Press, $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) Pvt. Palmer is “back in the world,” and like most of us who served in uniform in Vietnam, he confronts a new America, one that is very different from the one he left behind a year earlier. Reilly accurately portrays the confusion of Palmer as he struggles to find his direction home.

The strategies that served him well in Vietnam don’t help much in Denver, San Francisco, or Los Angeles where he goes to pursue a movie career. Palmer’s “California dreamin’” comes to naught and soon enough he’s back in Denver behind the wheel of a cab.

Our hero had some fun adventures in California—Strother Martin, Gunsmoke, and the La Brea Tar Pits come into play. It’s a near thing that Palmer doesn’t end up in the pits along with the saber-toothed tigers and the ancient giant tree sloths. He also played phone tag with Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, John Steinbeck, and Woody Allen.

Palmer’s return to America also involves his fear about his role in baby killing. He tries to play an early Animals album that has “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” on it at a party, but is told that it  was not “the right sound for now.” No sounds Palmer comes up with are, as he tries very hard to become a part of things, but all his efforts fail miserably.

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Gary Reilly

No book I’ve read better captures the anomie that poor, befuddled Palmer struggles with. Behind the wheel of a taxi, Palmer finds his place in America—permanently on the move, always changing his destination—a destination chosen by others.

The Discharge prepares us for The Asphalt Warrior series—eight books so far—all of them comedy classics.  Read them after you read this one, if you haven’t already.

The publisher’s website is theasphaltwarrior.com

—David Willson

Aztec File by Dale A. Dye

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Dale Dye, the former Marine who served in Vietnam in 1965 and in 1967-70 and in the mid-eighties re-invented military technical advising in Hollywood (think Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Born on the Fourth of July, et al.), also has written a slew of novels, including seven in the Shake Davis series.

Sheldon (Shake) Davis is a guy who manages to be where the action is and knows what to do to forestall disaster. In Dye’s seventh and newest in the series, Aztec File (Warriors Publishing Group, $14.95, paper; 280 pp.; $6.99, Kindle), Shake is suspicious about some bad guys who are up to something along the Mexican-U.S. border.

Shake’s suspicions lead him to another problem-solving exercise in the nick of time, which he specializes in. Spoiler alert: At the most extreme point of danger, Shake yells “Bomb!”—which I do not recommend as the first step in dealing with a group of jihadis who have built a huge explosive device out of oil barrels and fertilizer and fuel oil and are on the brink of exploding it in a crowd.

Shake receives an award for his action, which is not the result I predict if you or I did the same thing.  We’d get shot or blown up—or both—but Shake gets decorated and afterward everyone eats barbeque and drinks his or her beverage of choice.

This is the best and most exciting Shake Davis novel so far. I enjoyed seeing the jihadis defeated, along with some Mexican gang bangers who are thrown into the mix. They kidnap Mrs. Shake and mistreat her. Their reward for that is brutal and final.  Yes, Shake Davis is a “hard man,” but we need such men in hard times.

If you are a fan of Dale Dye’s fine series of thrillers featuring Shake Davis and his band of faithful helpers, buy this book. You will not be disappointed.

—David Willson

Big Mother 40 and Render Harmless by Marc Liebman

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After I finished reading Cherubs-2, Marc Liebman’s book that was billed as the third in a series with Lt. Josh Haman as the main character, I looked up other books in the series, which I swiftly realized were written and published earlier than the third book. I’m not bothered by reading series novels out of the sequence they were published, especially when they were written out of chronological sequence.

Big Mother 40 (Fireship Press, 402 pp., $19.95, paper; $7.50, Kindle) is another great read from Liebman—a retired Navy captain who served in the Vietnam War. This one focuses on the use of Navy helicopters in rescue operations during the war. Of course, there is also a military adventure story to go along with the education in how Navy helicopters were used in rescue missions in Vietnam.

Render Harmless (Fireship, 544., pp., $21.95, paper; $6.50, Kindle) finds Lt. Haman on an exchange with Fleet Air Arm in 1976 when the Red Hand starts setting off car bombs. There is lots of detail on car bombs, but not enough detail that I felt able to build and safely detonate one when I finished this exciting thriller.

Those who enjoyed any one of Marc Liebman’s novels featuring Josh Haman are more than likely to enjoy all of the rest of them as well.

I know I did.

The author’s website is MarcLiebman.com

—David Willson

Lincoln Park by James Westergreen

516ip8jobul-_sx331_bo1204203200_James Westergreen served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His novel Lincoln Park (Black Rose Writing, 242 pp., $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) starts off in Quang Phu in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in late 1969. The first paragraph is about leeches and Americans wading the paddies, mostly likely working in the Phoenix Program. I was hooked enough to keep reading.

The back cover blurb tells us that this book is a wartime thriller ranging “from the pleasure districts of Saigon to the back-alleys of Chicago.” MP Cpt. Tobias Riley is on a quest for vengeance as his buddies are double-crossed and their bodies litter the pages.

Naturally, there is an American deserter who joins up with a mysterious Madam who runs a heroin ring out of a hotel in Cholon. I spent a lot of time in Cholon, but never ran into anything exciting. But that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to read a novel about the time I spent in Cholon; it’d be too boring, and this novel is far from boring. The bloody exploits of villain Jack Flash in his Phoenix Program role keeps the pot boiling with his connections to “Air American pilots, Chinese warlords and rogue soldiers.”

The characters are running a race to the first to retrieve a lost C-47 full of heroin. The colorful, all-American language keeps the book anchored in the times: We read about Terry and the Pirates, Roy Orbison, OK Corral, My Lai and Lt. Calley, the Moron Corps, Davy Crockett, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Steve McQueen, Jim Morrison, Brigit Bardot, Nancy Sinatra, The Monkees, Glen Miller, Flash Gordon, Agent Orange, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” Geronimo, Saddle Up, Most Ricky Tick, FTA, righting with our arms tied behind our backs, Indian Country, the light at the end of the tunnel, Peace with Honor, cannon fodder, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—the list goes on and on.

Westergreen creates a verbal tapestry with this language, which holds the sometimes frantic plot and story lines together. The language is almost another character in this frantic and hectic thriller. The author is a superb word craftsman.

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James Westergreen

Double-cross and vengeance color most of the pages in this fast-paced book. Fans of wartime thrillers will love it.  Good luck in finding another book more filled with the violence associated with modern war and illegal drugs run amok.

Westergreen has made his career writing gritty action novels. He has hit new highs in this one.  Buy it and enjoy.

The author’s website is https://jwestergreen.wixsite.com/author

—David Willson