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

The Surgeon’s Curse by Douglas Volk

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Douglas Volk’s exciting paranormal crime thriller, The Surgeon’s Curse (DanJon Press, 471 pp. $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is the second book in his The Morpheus series. As such, it creates some difficulties for a reviewer because you do not want to ruin the reading experience for anyone who has not read the first one, The Morpheus Conspiracy—one of my favorite reads of 2019.

That book centers on a curse that was picked up by an American soldier in Vietnam while in the midst of a performing an inappropriate act. The curse continues into this book. There’s very little mention of the Vietnam War this time, but it’s significant that the evil that runs throughout the story originated there—at least as far as this story is concerned. In reality, this specific evil has probably existed since the beginning of time.

Twelve years have elapsed as this book begins, so the year is 1986. Dr. Alix Cassidy returns, still carrying out research on nightmares and their possible link to mental illness. She specials in the controversial field of Somnambulistic Telepathy, which makes it possible for some sleeping people to control another person’s nightmares. In the previous book the main character has the ability to step into people’s nightmares, doing them harm or even killing them. That ability is now carried out by a different character.

The killings in this story are extremely brutal, though Volk does not linger over them voyeuristically. There is a serial killer afoot who calls himself The Surgeon for some pretty nasty reasons. He’s a dream-traveler being pursued by detectives using traditional means, but before long they turn to the sleep scientists for help. Eventually, most of those bearing down on the bad guy begin suffering hellish nightmares.

Things get even more interesting with the introduction of quantum physics, more specifically the concept of quantum entanglement. That, as we all know (cough-cough), is the discovery that two nuclear particles millions of light years apart can interact with each other. Mix that with some good old Cajun voodoo and stir well.

More than just a casual read, this book suggests that this curse may be a form of energy created by unknown forces from the unseen space-time world. Pretty serious stuff. A Nightmare Team is created to confront the bad guy in the most efficient manner, in a dream.

Douglas Volk is a marvelous storyteller and excels at writing realistic dialogue. That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re dealing with his subject matter. So, buckle up for a fast-moving tale that plays out in a “Devil’s Quadrangle” of Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, and northern Maine.

Part-horror, part-police procedural, it’s every bit as good as the earlier book in this series.  It might scare the hell out of you.

–Bill McCloud

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.

Angels in the Balance by Michael J. Ganas

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Michael J. Ganas served in the Vietnam War as a crew chief and door gunner on both Hueys and Loaches during his 1969-70 tour of duty with the 17th Air Cavalry Regiment. Angels in the Balance (Outskirts Press, 576 pp. $41.95, hardcover; $28.95,paper; $4.99, Kindle), his third novel, centers on a Army helicopter crew chief and door gunner in the Vietnam War. This commonality led me to conclude that much of the novel is based on Ganas’ Vietnam War experiences.

He has transformed his material into a novel by coming up with a plot centering on a huge cache of emeralds. The emeralds make everyone in the book rich, but not without a lot of Sturm und Drang and plot twists. I enjoyed the novel but would probably have appreciated a straight memoir just as much.

Angels in the Balance is very well written and well plotted for a Vietnam War thriller. The title was a puzzler to me until angels started showing up. Elements of the religious and the supernatural play a huge role, far more so than a reader might expect.

The angels appear when needed to pull characters out of certain-death situations. They do their angelic work with a minimum of angelic fuss. At first, I was a bit troubled by the angels, but found myself getting used to them in short order. The author and the main character often ponder the ineffable—which I wound up doing myself.

There also are lots of references to classical scholarship, and it helps if you are familiar with enough Greek and Latin stories to understand the importance of the main character’s name, Troy Leonidas. If not, I recommend looking them up in a classical dictionary.

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Michael Ganas

The novel is rich with references to Sgt. York, John Wayne, shit burning, Agent Orange, Tarzan, Green Berets, the Old West, wagon trains, Indians, pot use, and tons of other Vietnam War generation era popular-culture terms.

I recommend Angels in the Balance highly to those hungry for a helicopter-centered Vietnam War thriller with a different twist on the subject.

This book is twisted up like a Belgian pastry.

–David Willson

The Hawk and the Dove by Tom Baker

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With his big novel, The Hawk and the Dove (Page Publishing, 493 pp. $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Vietnam War veteran Tom Baker draws a thread through more than a thousand years, tying together examples of military courage by men and women who find themselves engaged in conflicts of different kinds in different places around the world.

The book opens in the middle of a Viking raid, then moves to a time when British troops are trying to hold back Napoleon’s advancing forces. In its second half, the book takes us into the American Civil War, World War II, and then the American war in Vietnam and the 1990s civil war in Rwanda.

What ties the stories together are appearances in each one of a hawk as well as dove, which almost seems to be the hawk’s mate. Sometimes the hawk attacks people, sometimes it protects others. Some people direct it to attack and the hawk responds. Sometimes it influences battlefield decisions. Which leads to the question: Is it a reincarnated warrior?

When some Vikings are asked why they pillage and rampage, the response is because it’s what they’ve always done. Baker also writes that “every little boy wants to be a warrior.”

When the second chapter moved to the Napoleonic Wars I was happy to see that Baker wrote it without making it read like just the same people from the first chapter were saying the same things they did centuries earlier. Chapter Two—which contains one surprise after another—transports the reader to a different place and time, beautifully described, though the warriors still struggle with big and small questions about war and peace.

In Chapter Three we encounter a Confederate troops fighting against the Union Army during the American Civil War. While the big reasons for this war are up for debate, most of the southern troops say they are fighting because their land had been invaded by Lincoln’s army. Here we encounter ambushes, amputations, field hospitals, and prisoners of war. A character dreams of Vikings, tying us to the book’s first page. The pairing of the hawk and dove seems more than ever to be expressing a future possibility of human beings eventually learning to coexist peacefully.

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The final two chapters deal with episodes during World War II and in the Vietnam War (briefly). Things finish up in the east-central African nation of Rwanda in 1994. Throughout the book it’s made clear than women can be guided by warrior spirits just as men can. Toward the end, things become mystical, but Baker makes it work.

A summarizing quote from the book could be: “The quest for peace is an ever-renewed task, calling forth brave men and women in every generation.”

Baker’s novel is an enjoyable, thoughtful, reading experience.

–Bill McCloud

The Life of an Airborne Ranger Book Three: Everyone Comes Home by Michael Kitz-Miller

 

Michael Kitz-Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for three years, leaving the military as a 101st Airborne Division Sergeant E-5. The Life of an Airborne Ranger, Book Three: Everyone Comes Home (Xlibris, 476 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $23.93, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third novel in his series of Airborne ranger books. It is filled with action, along with endless details about the nature of being a career soldier in the Army taking part in conflicts in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Iran Hostage, Kuwait, and Iraq.

I had never read anything about our war in Grenada, so that section of the book especially interested me. Kitz-Miller, who died in July, portrays that war as a fucked-up mess from the get-go. As an example of how unready we were to fight that war, he points out that no official maps were available. The novel’s hero, Jack Donovan, has to obtain and use tourist maps to try to find the college campuses he is supposed to be protecting and evacuating.

The 44th Airborne Division and the 45th Infantry Division are fictional units invented by the author to protect the guilty. Kitz-Miller’s heavy reliance on the teachings and writings of Ayn Rand are interesting, but are not the bible of Objectivism, her philosophic system. Rand, who once visited West Point and delivered a lecture there is mentioned often in the novel, but she’s not the only one. Audie Murphy gets a major shout-out when Donovan is described as the most decorated soldier of the modern era.  Murphy is put in the shade by Donovan who seems to get five and six of most major medals.

This massive novel follows Jack Donovan’s career up to his promotion to four-star general. The details are engrossing and well-described and held my interest. The narrative is spiced up by the adventures of Donovan’s Welsh terrier and the academic progress of Donovan’s college professor wife.

I recommend this novel to readers who are interested in Army careers and what it takes to rise to the top in the modern military. I am glad I decided that a military career was not for me. Spec.5 was as high as I went. That happens to be where Jack’s career starts in this book. Right where mine ended.

—David Willson