The Romanovsky Stain by Duke Zimmer

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Duke Zimmer is the pseudonym of a writer, producer, and director who has produced more than fifty nonfiction films and has written scores of newspaper and magazine articles. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent five years in Western Europe during the height of the Cold War as a counterintelligence agent with the 66th Military Intelligence Brigade. He served as a recon scout with the Echo Company of 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry. in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam from December 1969 to November 1970 when he was wounded in action.

The Romanovsky Stain: After Action Report (Tate Publishing, 320 pp., $4.50, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the first of five novels in a series featuring Jacob Steiner as the main character and narrator. Steiner shares much of his military history with his creator, having also served “a stint with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.” He says he left with enough shrapnel in his body to set off a metal detector seven feet away.

Steiner “got a gig with the CIA through a friend and former teammate in Vietnam, Daniel Bornaire,” Zimmer writes. “We called him Zippo, Zip for short.” Officially he was a trade rep, but unofficially he was a spy.

The Romanovsky Stain is a spy novel of the sort that all readers of spy novels are familiar with.  The hero starts off as a captive, chained to a pipe in the hold of a ship and hopeful that if he gets free, he might have a chance of making it to the side of the ship, jump overboard, and swim to shore. This sort of derring-do is fun to read about if it is made half-way believable. Zimmer—presumably drawing on his actual experiences—does make it both fun and believable.

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Zimmer

There is much mention of the Vietnam War in this book, including one character saying in passing, “the toughest job in Nam was being a nurse.” There’s also this comment about high-tech weapons: “If we’d had this stuff in Nam, there’s no telling.” John Wayne gets a mention, and typical nicknames are used for characters, such as “Pinto,” who has a wine stain birthmark on his face.

My favorite comment in this book about the war is that “in Vietnam, we often slept with one eye open. People don’t believe it’s possible. Believe me, it is.” Maybe Tarzan could do it, but it’s hard to believe that recon teams in the bush would get any real sleep, one-eyed or two. If you do believe that anyone can sleep with one eye open, perhaps this is the book for you.

There will be four more of them featuring Jacob Steiner. That’s both a warning and a promise.

—David Willson

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Memory Lane: The 60’s by John Leone

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John Leone’s novel, Memory Lane: the 60’s (CreateSpace, 356 pp., $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), is a large book dealing with American popular culture, mostly from 1962-64. The Vietnam War does not rear its ugly head until near the end of the book.

To wit this passage from 1964: “Louie strolled down and gleefully told us that by this time next year, we’d be fighting a war in some place called Vietnam. It seemed the North Vietnamese had fired on one of our ships over in Asia.”

“By the end of 1965,” Leone writes, “almost all of us had received our notices.”

That’s exactly how it happened to me. My notice arrived late in December 1965, I accepted induction into the Army because that is what my grandfather, Homer Willson, had done. I didn’t wish to be a Marine like my father or to go into the Navy like my Uncle Roy.

Leone was told that because he broke his arm, when the cast came off and he’d done some rehab, he’d have a chance to re-enlist and be moved up to Specialist 6th class with a bonus of $8,000.  Not an offer that came my way. Far from it.

With the Vietnam War only arriving near the end, the bulk of the book deals with such early sixties subjects as rock and roll and there are references to “Teen Angel,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “My Boyfriend’s Back.” That old standby, “Soldier Boy,”  pops up on page 333.

This work of comedic fiction is described as being “fictionalized, some exaggerated and some (hopefully) funny.” That’s honest enough.  I would have liked Leone to tell us about his background. On his website, Leone reports that he served in the Army as a helicopter crew chief and mechanic in the Vietnam War. In this book he chooses not to let the reader know that. His previous book was a Vietnam War memoir, Us Guys: The Army in the 60s

This book would have benefited from photos, but alas, there are none. There are things to enjoy here, but the story is so personal that some things slide by with little impact.

I recommend this book to those who don’t let anything about the 60s elude them.

The author’s website is johnleonebooks.com

—David Willson

Vietnam Remix by Jack Nolan

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Jack Nolan served for three years, from 1967-70, in Army intelligence. He was stationed at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, and then to Vietnam where he worked in bilateral operations  in Can Tho and Saigon before returning home to train others in that arcane craft.

His novel of civilian-cover espionage, Vietnam Remix (CreateSpace, 316 pp. $16, paper; $4.99, Kindle), takes place astraddle the 1968 Tet Offensive. It follows a team of young men, “The Greyhawk Six.” The group is made up of  “the feisty Irish kid who can sing like an angel; the big, plodding Southerner who can perform complicated math in his head; the rude, feral Cajun who learns compassion; the peace-maker turned warrior; the rich guy from Harlem forced to be what he isn’t; and the earnest Catholic forced to be what he is.”

This small group embarks upon one zany escapade after another. They are all bright guys who effortlessly take part in cockamamie adventures, misadventures, and civilian cover stories that boggle the mind. They dress civilians so they can pass as nonmilitary contractors.

This is a literate, smoothly written, well-plotted novel unlike any others I have read about the American war in Vietnam. I enjoyed it and highly recommend it to anyone who would like to read a book that is well-edited and that goes its own way to produce an entertaining read filled with surprises and many twists and turns.

That said, the book nods in the direction of the familiar a few times. For instance, the song “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” is genuflected to as it is in hundreds of other Vietnam War novels.  Fragging is also considered and the case is made that the war machine is run by a group called The Clerk’s Mafia. Army clerks like to kid themselves that they are the ones in charge of the war, but I (a former clerk) have my doubts.

For a different look at modern war—and for quite a few laughs—read Vietnam Remix. You won’t regret it.

—David Willson

Sagahawk by the Sea John F. Bronzo

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The Vietnam War figures in John Bronzo’s latest novel, Sagahawk by the Sea: A Love Story Changes History (Archway, 270 pp., $34.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper’ $3.99, e book), but it comes along relatively late in the story. This is a novel of time travel, so the story moves anywhere and anytime the author wants it to go.

This time travel novel begins in 1961, then proceeds in sections to 1967. Bronzo—whose previous book was Mary Bernadette: Secrets of a Dallas Moon: A Young Vietnamese Girl’s Tale from the Grave about the Killing of JFK—dedicates this new book in part to his high school classmate, Peter E. Sipp, know as “Dude.” Sipp “was killed in Vietnam when he threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies,” Bronzo writes, “sacrificing his life so they could live out theirs.”

This novel includes the author’s explanation of what really happened on July 7, 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico, with that mysterious crash of a so-called flying saucer. One of the characters in this novel is sent there to investigate.

“At first it was said to have been a flying saucer, but later it was identified as a weather balloon,” Bronzo writes.

This novel jumbles up time so that unexpected things happen to those who are affected by the mutants that show up in Roswell with a warning to Americans related to Russian missiles in Cuba and God knows what else.

“If 1965 is the year that Vietnam first invaded my consciousness, 1966 is the year that Vietnam caught the nation’s attention in earnest,” Bronzo writes. “Protests against the war became a commonplace occurrence on college campuses, in cities across the country, and on everyone’s television screen.”

That’s true as far as it goes, but this book, as most books do, makes it seem as though everyone in this country was talking and thinking about the Vietnam War. But most of us were not searching our souls.

The National Guard and the Reserves get a mention as refuge for “the savvy” and the well connected draft evaders and that others were fleeing to Canada. Most draft age men, just hoped for the best and went along with whatever came their way. That included your reviewer.

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Bronzo

For those who enjoy conjecture about the options available in history, including during the Vietnam War, Sagahawk by the Sea might be the novel for you.

As the subtitle has it, “A Love Story Changes History.” Read the novel and see if you agree that that really happens.

Bronzo’s website is johnfbronzo.wordpress.com

—David Willson

Curse of the Coloring Book by Howard L. Hibbard

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Howard Hibbard quit college in 1967 to volunteer for the Army. He served as an infantry lieutenant in the Vietnam War, including a stint as a company commander.

Hibbard’s Curse of the Coloring Book: A Novel Inspired by a True Story (Ghost Dog Enterprises, 384 pp., $16.95, paper) is based on his combat and legal experiences, along with PTSD, which has been dominant in his life.

The novel, Hibbard’s first, is told in two back-and-forth sections: those dealing with the long ago past when main character Herald Lloyd was young and in Vietnam, and those recounting the recent, current life he is leading as an attorney who messed up some paperwork and whose career is in severe jeopardy. I found myself focusing more on the Vietnam War sections and being much less absorbed in the legal career Herald is fighting to hang onto.

When reading an infantry novel I tend to keep track of recurring motifs, and I did that with this book. The classic song for GIs of the Vietnam War, The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was referred to so many times I lost track of how many. That’s a first for me. The last reference takes up nearly an entire page and emphasizes the chaotic camaraderie of an entire platoon singing that song loudly and off key.

Another recurring motif—in this book and in many Vietnam War infantry books—is John Wayne, the man and the movie star. Not to mention REMFs, shit burning, fragging and western references such as Wild Bill Hickok, Custer’s Last Stand, “saddle up,” “died with his boots on,” and others. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry collection, Coney Island of the Mind, is the backbone of the book, as Hibbard includes many quotes and references to it.

Much is made of the “fact” that Vietnam was always hot and never cooled off at night. That may have been true in some places, but I got cold enough at night many times in Long Binh to need a wool Army blanket.

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Howard Hibbard

The two stories—the legal mess of Herald’s adult life and the youthful adventure in the Vietnam War—were absorbing to a degree. The Vietnam War episodes were what I enjoyed reading. I’ve never been a lawyer so that might be part of the reason.

I did tire of the wacky characters in Vietnam with wondrous nicknames such as Dogman. But I’ve learned that is the price a reader pays for choosing to read a Vietnam War infantry novel.

As for the coloring book in the title, it is easily ignored with no loss of meaning to the novel.

The author’s website is howardlhibbard.com

—David Willson

Keep Forever: A Novel by Alexa Kingaard

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In her novel, Keep Forever (BookBaby, 268 pp., $14.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Alexa Kingaard thanks the Veteran’s Writing Group in Oceanside, California, which gave her “shelter from the storm.” Keep Forever, she writes, is based on her experiences living with and “tragically losing” a Vietnam War veteran.

The book tells the story of Paul O’Brien, a Marine who returns from the war with terrible burdens he shares with those he loves. “It was inspired by the Vietnam neterans I have known and loved,” Kingaard writes, “and their lifelong struggles with PTSD.”

Paul O’Brien wants to make a nightmare-free life for himself, but his sleep is disturbed by guilt. Blurbs from readers say that they couldn’t put the novel down once they started reading it, even when they were sobbing. I admit to shedding a few tears myself.

Late in the book we are told that “no amount of visits to the VA were fixing the problem, and the answers from the overworked and understaffed medical facility were always the same. ‘It’s the best we can do. We don’t have the resources. You have to wait like everyone else. It’s a long line.’”

That’s the tune my friends and I frequently heard in the years immediately after the war and for a long time after that. However, things have improved at my local VA (in the Seattle area).They may not have not improved elsewhere.

Paul O’Brien comes alive on the page as a seriously disturbed veteran, but also as a believable one. He keeps a duffel bag packed at all times to take with him when he leaves the house so he is prepared for all exigencies. He is very slow to get ready and is usually late for all appointments—if he makes them at all.

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Alexa Kingaard

When his wife suggests he see a therapist, his reaction is, “Definitely not. That would be cowardly and weak.”

He remains on high alert at all times. He postpones going to see his doctor, even though he has serious symptoms.

When he finally goes to the doctor, he’s told he has stage-four prostate cancer, and it’s too late for Paul O’Brien. He was a lifelong collector, storing and hoarding his treasures intending to leave them as his legacy to those he loved. Or so he told himself.

He would have been wiser to give them the gift of himself. Most likely all that junk would prove a burden to his loved ones.

If you are looking for a very sad book that tells the familiar story of a veteran unable to get past his war, this book could be the one for you.

The author’s website is alexakingaard.com

–David Willson

Best We Forget by Bernard Clancy

For much of Bernard Clancy’s novel, Best We Forget (Indra, 420 pp., $16.50, paperback; $7.99, Kindle), we are locked inside the head of a young Australian serviceman, Donkey Simpson, where we are never far from what Clancy calls “a slice of madness.”

Donkey Simpson is stationed in Saigon for a year. He spends much of that time swimming in beer, hoping and praying to survive. But it’s not just his life Simpson wants to retain. It’s his sanity, his sense of order and, perhaps, his patriotism.

It isn’t long before the wide-eyed Simpson comes to realize there is no order here, only chaos. As for the mission, it changes from day to day, depending on who’s giving the orders and what mood they’re in.

There is occasional violence and a backdrop of intrigue. But mostly there is gnawing heat and relentless boredom. Simpson struggles to pass the time and lusts for a young Asian woman who turns out to be a spy. Given what he will learn about the lives of the “nogs,” as he calls them, Simpson is torn between a sense of sympathy and one of betrayal.

So he swings between caring and hatred—for her and for all the faces he passes on the street. The solution: bar girls, beer and—when he can find it—air conditioning.

Best We Forget is fiction. But the author, who served in Vietnam in 1968-69, paints a realistic picture of the desolation of the country, the lack of clarity in the mission, and the uncertainty of the allies’ commitment.

Truth and clear-headedness often comes—not from the leadership—but from privates and corporals, as we see in an early exchange between two young soldiers talking about the Tet Offensive.

That will never happen again, one says. “Don’t bet on it,” comes the reply. “Charlie’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

After months of duty, Simpson begins to wear down.

“He began going out more often, drinking more,” Clancy writes. “He even began buying Saigon teas for bar girls, anything to relieve the boredom, to escape the crushing reality of what, like so many before and around him, he was beginning to see as a complete and utterly pointless exercise. Worse, he felt chained into a madness which suffocated and choked. And the more he squirmed, the tighter the chains twisted.”

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Clancy

Clancy paints a vivid picture of life in Saigon.

“As Matthews weaved the Land Rover through millions of motor scooters and motorbikes, pushbikes and the clapped-out relics of French cars, he saw a huge, filthy, stinking slum. People wandered listlessly among roadside huts made from cardboard boxes and slabs of American beer-can stamped sheet metal; rubbish, filth, refuse, everything just dumped everywhere. Buildings, filthy, old, dilapidated, falling to pieces.

“The stench almost turned Donkey’s stomach inside out. Exhaust smoke from the motorbikes blued the air. And God it was hot.”

 

Clancy is at his best when he shows us what he’s seen. For that reason, some readers might wish for a bit more description and a bit less escapism.

The author’s website is bernardclancy.net

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue