A Portion of the Loveliness by Christoph Feldkirchen

Christoph Feldkirchen’s  A Portion of the Loveliness (Feldkirchen Press, 212 pp., $11.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle) is a work of fiction. There are three short novels in this book; the first one, “Nothing Could Happen,” deals with the war in Vietnam. That title is taken from a long quotation from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that sets the tone of the book. It is a scene in which a man-of-war ship sends shells from the Congo River in the African jungle trying to hit unseen enemies. It reminded me of the American war in Vietnam, which I suspect is intentional.

The main character of this short novel, Feldkrichen (like the author), tells us he entered Navy boot camp in September 1965. Later he describes his onboard duty on a ship nicknamed “The Bucket.”

“If you were unlucky, you might work all day, be CQ all evening, stand a midnight to four a.m. watch, grab two hours of sleep, and be on duty all next day,” he writes. “Everyone was tired, all were irritable and there was no end of griping.”

I’ve not read many novels or memoirs dealing with Navy duty during the Vietnam War. I enjoyed this one. When it ended, I found myself wishing for more, a rare feeling when reading a book I knew nothing about before I started it.

This short novel is light hearted, well written, and it reinforces my long-ago decision to spend my tour of military duty in the Army. The graphic descriptions of seasickness made me slightly nauseous.  (Full disclosure: The chemo I am on makes me feel that way often enough anyhow.)

Thanks, Christoph Feldkirchen, for writing this book. The other two novellas also were good. Please consider writing a full-length novel or memoir of your time in the Navy. I promise I will read it.

—David Willson

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Vietnam What? by Gianni Ruffo

Gianni Ruffo, the auther of Vietnam What? The True Story of Fictional Characters and Real People (190 pp., $7.99, paper; $4.99, e book), lives in Campobasso, Italy, and works for a bank. He has no military background, but has always been “keen on military history,” he says, particularly World War II and the Vietnam War. He tells us he has a collection of more than 300 documentary items about those wars.

The promise made in the book’s subtitle is kept in the body. We encounter many fictional characters, including Johnny, the protagonist, and we also find that the author has put to good use many of his reference artifacts, especially the books. We get potted encounters and dialogue from such Vietnam War icons as the sniper Carlos Hathcock, Lt. Col. Hal (We Were Soldiers Once) Moore, and a surprise from Dieter Dengler, the German-born Navy pilot who was shot down in Laos, taken prisoner, and later escaped from his Viet Cong captors.

This reader encountered too many clichés, and soon got sick of phrases such as “ready in a wink,” “saving their bacon,” and “straight from the horse’s mouth.” Johnny is a totally unbelievable CIA agent. His frequent use of words and phrases such as “knackered,” “car bonnet,” “rookies” for newbies, and “stinks like a polecat” did not help bring him to life. When he noshed on meatballs, I was tempted to quit reading. But I persisted.

The book gets us to the 1968 Tet Offensive, and Johnny goes on and on about how we could have won the war if we’d only used A bombs. “A couple of atomic bombs,” he says, “could do the job.”  I did hear that said from time to time when I was in Vietnam, but most folks didn’t want it to happen. Or so they said.

Dieter Dengler after his release

Spoiler alert:  At the end of this little book we find out that it was all a dream. I was relieved.

If you are going to read only one novel or memoir about the Vietnam War, you’d do better to go elsewhere. The book did amuse, but I believe Dieter Dengler’s Escape from Laos would be a better place to start reading.

—David Willson

Run Between the Raindrops by Dale Dye

Dale Dye served multiple tours in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1970 as a Marine Corps combat correspondent. He rose through the ranks and retired as a Captain after putting in twenty-one years. In Vietnam, Dye survived thirty-one big combat operations—including the Battle of Hue during Tet ’68. In his novel Run Through the Raindrops (Warriors Publishing Group, 254 pp., $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) Dye writes brilliantly about the long, bloody fighting in Hue City.

That battle is familiar to those who have seen the movie Full Metal Jacket or read the novel upon which the movie was based, Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers. It is almost as though the main character of Dye’s novel, also a combat correspondent, is a character from Hasford’s book.

The scenes, language, and action have much overlap with Full Metal Jacket. If you loved Hasford’s book or the movie, this new Author’s Preferred Edition of Run Between the Raindrops will please you on every page.

About a sixth of the way through, there is a friendly fire incident in which two Hueys roar up a canal and strafe Marines trying to cross on a makeshift bridge. The scene is described so cinematically it is hard to believe that I’ve not seen it in a movie. As a matter of fact, I’d like to see this book made into a movie.

Our hero carries an NVA pack crammed with the stuff he needs to be a combat correspondent—everything he owns, he tells us. There is room in there for canteens full of vodka. The vodka came from a trade with rear-echelon troops for war souvenirs.

Dye writes that REMFs would take bartered war materiel home and claim they got the stuff in combat. This is a universal trope in novels about the Vietnam War. I never met a valor-stealing REMF, but there must be one or two out there somewhere.

Dye fills his novel with memorable characters such as Philly Dog, his partner Willis, and Reb the Southerner. The action and the language are a delight, and I’ve read too many novels to be easily impressed. I wish all the Vietnam War writers who have come late to the game would read this novel and try to do as well as Dye does.

Dye wrote this novel long ago; when it was published in 1985, it was mostly ignored. I hope this new edition will get more attention. It deserves to be on the small shelf of classic books about Marine Corps battle action in the Vietnam War.

Run Between the Raindrops has a lot of dark humor. That makes it easier to read the many violent scenes and not wince too badly when characters suffer serious wounds.

Combat correspondents, Dye writes,  are “just glorified grunts, my man.  We go where you go and watch what you do, maybe even write a few stories, shit like that. When it gets messy, we add some firepower. No big thing.”

The book also contains trenchant observations on the nature of war.  Dye writes: “That’s what counts in a war of ideas. How the fight turns out is less important than the fact that you forced it on the enemy and made it as bloody as possible.”

Dye does not forget about John Wayne, “saddle up,” those “chicken-shit ARVN’s”, the Phantom Blooper, the problems with M-16s, and the Black Syphilis. But the freshness of his language elevates this book above 90 percent of Vietnam War novels.

When he tells us of “dragging the dead along like floppy pull-toys” and has his main character adapt a Bill Cosby riff on Custer and the Indians to Gen. Giap vs. General Westmoreland, the book enters new territory.  Also, this is the first Vietnam War book I’ve read that compares the look of worn out American troops to Coxey’s Army. I enjoyed that one.

Dale Dye

I loved the ironic lament near the end about “no parades, no free beers, nothing but pity which is worse than being ignored. There it is and thanks very much for your service.”

That ranks right up there with Dye’s comment on the Marine Corps: “That’s a lot of tradition but not much progress.”

Those who want to read more about the Marine Corps in Vietnam, especially in the Battle for Hue City, are advised to seek out and buy this fine novel most ricky-tick.

—David Willson

The Foot Soldier by Mark Rubinstein

Mark Rubinstein served in the U. S. Army in South Vietnam as a field medic tending to paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division. After his discharge he went to medical school, took a psychiatric residency, and became a forensic psychiatrist. He is now a professor of psychiatry at Cornell University Medical School. The Foot Soldier (Thunder Lake Press, 58 pp., $3.99, paper; $.99, Kindle) is his third work of fiction.

This novella features blurbs that give an accurate picture of the book. Warren Glaser, who served as a Marine Corps surgeon in Korea, says: “It brings you to the hell of wartime combat. It’s a compelling story.” Martin Isler says the book “is every bit as compelling as The Things They Carried.”  High praise, indeed, although a bit overreaching.

When the main character, Costa, arrives in South Vietnam, the heat hits him “like a blast furnace” as he and the other new arrivals are “herded like cattle into a replacement depot.”

I wasn’t thrilled to encounter those Vietnam War fiction clichés on the very first page of the book. They would be fine In dialogue, but not in Costa’s internal thoughts. They set my teeth on edge, to not coin a phrase. Furthermore, the heat there was not like a blast furnace. It was too humid for that.

Costa is assigned to Second Battalion, Bravo Company, Third Platoon, under the command of a Lt. Johnson, a stereotype of the redneck southern officer: fat, piggy -eyed, and prejudiced against northerners.  His first communication with Costa consists of asking him if he is “a guinea, a spic or wetback?”

I never heard that sort of talk in the Army. And I thought that a “spic” and a “wetback” were the same. Johnson is said to be a “ninety-day wonder right out of OCS.”

Costa’s first assignment is to “empty fifty-gallon drums of excrement from the company latrines.” No mention is made of burning the stuff.  Soon, Costa is on a search and destroy mission in Quang Ngai Province. A free-fire zone in VC country.

Rubinstein

Costa is assigned to walk point by the lieutenant, against the wishes of First Sergeant Davis,an old Asian hand who knows the score. Davis is also the designated tunnel-rat and is said to not have looked for a “rear flank assignment.”  At one point Lt. Johnson threatens Sgt. Davis with a “Section Eight.” Not likely.

Things don’t go well, and Costa finds himself at the point of Lt. Johnson’s .45 being ordered to kill a harmless old man in a village. Johnson already has shot several village pigs and demonstrated a “penchant for violence and sadism” as he “descended into some beastly valley of mindless hatred.” The lieutenant ends up dead; Costa is medevaced with a foot shot off. His tour of duty is over.

This novella is packed with grunt action and is well-written once it gets going. That said, it contains a few clinkers. Early on, the narrator tells us that a grunt spends a year in the boonies and then is reassigned to one year in the rear. That simply didn’t happen. After a year a grunt would be going home, if he were still alive.

I also would have liked to have been told straight out what happened to that excrement. I have fretted about its destination.

This novella is a good place for a reader to start with a brief entrance into literature about grunts in the Vietnam War, what the author calls a “war measured in clicks.”

The next stop should be Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried.

The author’s website is http://mark.markrubinstein-author.com

—David Willson

 

 

The Bird Dreamer by Michael Francis Reagan

We are told in Michael Francis Reagan’s The Bird Dreamer (War Writers’ Campaign, 59 pp., $4.99, Kindle) that the author served as a plane captain in the U. S. Navy from 1963-67 during the Vietnam War, and that he is a free-lance illustrator.

The hero of the story Reagan tells in this novella grew up alone in the woods in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina abandoned by his mother and then by his father. Eli Martin becomes an artist devoted to drawing birds. He is self-educated by a house of books, including Frye’s Complete Geography, which features maps of the world on which “Vietnam was a pale rose color.” He is the “Bird Dreamer” of the title. 

When Eli turns eighteen, he walks out of the woods and joins the Marines for four years, spending two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam with a rifle company in the Annam Highlands. 

He leaves behind his sweetheart, Erin Bellew, in the nearby village of Covenant. She is the daughter of the proprietor of Bellew’s General Store. Eli has secretly pledged his troth to Erin, without even making it known to her. He returns to his home deep in the woods, much traumatized by his time in Vietnam after having been awarded two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, and the Silver Star. He was called “Mountain Man” by his comrades in the Marines.

Michael Francis Reagan

He returns “home from a war nobody believed in anymore,”  as Eli puts it. He goes on to say: “I died over there, too, you know.”

When Erin realizes Eli is back, she thinks, “Would the war have ruined him like she had seen it do to so many other boys from around here?”

She has good reason to worry. Eli and his team had entered a small village after it had been napalmed, and witnessed the deaths of three small girls in a hut. They were suffering, but not quite dead from their lethal burns, and Eli put them out of their misery. One of the girls left behind a sketchbook of birds similar to the one that Eli had filled with bird drawings back home. Eli takes the sketchbook with him.

This moving story is equal parts parable and dream. Erin and Eli reach out to each other, hoping for the healing power of love. The reader will root for these two pure souls.

The book’s publisher, the nonprofit War Writers’ Campaign, believes in the power of therapy through communication.

I highly recommend this small book. It is one of a kind, and it is the sweetest and most hopeful healing tale of the Vietnam War I have ever read.

—David Willson

Blacktop, No Map by Roy Eisenstein

I read Roy Eisenstein’s novella, Blacktop, No Map (Amazon Digital Services, 47 pp, $4.99, Kindle), on my Kindle in one sitting. The author served with the 1st Signal Brigade in 1968-69; his main character is a Vietnam veteran who has PTSD.

The plot of this “on the road” story is that the main character is driving from the West Coast to return to the city of his origin, New York City. His companion is a young woman who would go anywhere with him under any circumstances. If I made this into a movie, I would cast Humphrey Bogart and the young Lauren Bacall in the main roles.

The couple uses a variety of cheap cars since they keep breaking down. They stay in a string of cheap motels and eat in cheap roadside restaurants. In one of these dives our hero gets into a knock-down, drag-out fight with “a pinhead who has a hair up his ass.”  The hero wins the fight, but only barely. He is beaten badly enough that the young woman has to drive for a while.

Roy Eisenstein

The writing in this breathless amalgam of a road novella and film noire script is fun to read. I’ll bet it was fun to write, too.

When his car blows a front tire, “the banging rhythm reminds me of Huey Cobras coming in to evac us from a firefight in the bush where life was so goddamn cheap.”

Eisenstein offers up such expressions as “a world gone mad,” “shallow lakes of love,” night road towards forever,” “morning comes up hot and angry,” and “Kamikaze insects explode on the windshield in Jackson Pollack-Rorshach sacrifices.”  This is just a small sample of the language in the book. I enjoyed them in the spirit they were offered.

The novella is sprinkled with references to the Vietnam War. They all passed muster. Some that stood out: “I woke up from another night in the rice paddies,”  “the damp rice paddies of my soul.”  Also: “a guy named Hank who has a VC scar and a platoon of dead brothers.”

No false notes in this book tarnished the relentless forward thrust of the narrative, and I enjoyed it mightily. I highly recommend this story to those who want to enjoy an afternoon in the sunshine with a cold drink, reading something to take their mind off their troubles and propel them into a world with a tough but sensitive hero and a beautiful younger woman who adores him and asks no questions about where they are bound and why.

I’ve been there; I totally get the appeal of such a story.

—David Willson