Arlen’s Gun by Edgar Doleman

Prepare to lose some sleep over Edgar Doleman’s Arlen’s Gun: A Novel of Men at War (Authorhouse, 338 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $20.99, paper; $5.99). Of the many books written about the Vietnam War, few have been as entertaining and informative as Arlen’s Gun, the story of an AC-47 Spooky gunship crew. The majority of the novel takes place after the aircraft is forced down and the crew, with one of its miniguns in tow, finds its way to friendly forces. Along the way, they experience the Vietnam War novelty of fighting the enemy face-to-face, as opposed to looking down on them from the sky.

Doleman served two Vietnam War tours during his 20-year Army career as an infantry officer. As you start to read his book, you will experience a growing dislike for his antihero, Arlen, whose intent to steal a minigun and mount it in a limousine back in the States is not only fanciful, but indicative of an extremely sick mind. It isn’t until he experiences sorrow over the death of his companion that you begin to think there might be something worthwhile about this guy.

The most admirable of the book’s characters are the NCOs who manage to keep level heads amid the chaos around them and provide stability and much-needed advice to the young officers in their units. The novel does them justice.

I’ve done a lot of reading, but have seldom finished a novel of this length in three days. When you can hold the interest of an old geezer like me and get him wrapped up in a story that is fact-based and exciting, you have really accomplished something.

 –William J. Wright

Vietnam War AC-47 Spooky gunship, aka “Puff the Magic Dragon”

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The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover by Jack Tucker

Jack Tucker says his novel, The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover (220 pp. $24.95, paper), which is set in California, Thailand, and Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is based on people he knew, things he did, and stories he heard. It’s a wild story centered on film editing and the sexual adventures of a young man turned loose on the world.

Tucker himself is an accomplished Hollywood film editor  who joined the U.S. Air Force at 19 and served in the Vietnam War at Korat Royal Thai AFB and Tan Son Nhut Air Base analyzing bombing and gun camera footage taken by cameras on U.S. aircraft. In his spare time, Tucker and another airman made a short film called The Hunter.

Here’s a summary of the plot of The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover: Frank Jones serves four years as a film editor in the Air Force (as his creator did), including months at bases in Thailand and South Vietnam. After coming home, he goes to work in southern California making porn movies. While he’s at it, he has sex—lots of sex. We get many descriptions of the physical attributes of the women he has sex with, as well as descriptions of many sex acts.

While in the Air Force he learns filmmaking, focusing on editing. He’s taught that “every cut should show something new,” and “you’re telling a story with pictures.” He volunteers to serve in the Vietnam War to get off of Vandenberg Air Force Base. When he meets a young woman who tells him she is in the Peace Corps, he replies: “Really? I’m with the War Corps.”

He describes Bangkok as a city constantly emitting a “sickening smell of rotten garbage,” he’s quickly taken by Thai women, deciding he will “try them all.” He becomes aware of a popular saying, “You know anyone can be a great lover here for three dollars,” which inspired the book’s title. He is not ashamed to drive the price below that on occasion.

Once at his duty station at Tan Son Nhut he starts each day with a shot of Jim Beam in his coffee. His job is to review, and occasionally make prints of, film footage from bombing runs and other flights. The book includes details about film editing.

Jack Tucker

As for Jones’ thoughts about the Vietnam War, Tucker writes: “I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t hate this place, but I hated our being here. History and politics had conspired to place us at the wrong place, at the wrong time and on the wrong side.”

Jones’ adventures are told in a crude manner, as if Tucker were sharing them with his buddies at a bar after a few beers. I imagine this was intentional.

The book does include insights into what it was like to serve in a support unit during the Vietnam War. It has value as presenting one slice of the U.S. Air Force’s role in the Vietnam War.

–Bill McCloud

In the Shadow of Green Bamboos by C.L. Hoang

In the Shadow of Green Bamboos (Willow Stream Publishing, 196 pp. $10.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by C.L. Hoang is a delightful collection of a half dozen short stories, all of which contain brief but penetrating glimpses into the lives of a cross section of people, Vietnamese and American, who were affected in significant ways by the American war in Vietnam. Hoang was born in Vietnam and came to the United States in the 1970s. This is his third book; all three deal with the country of Vietnam and the wars that took place there.

The opening story, “In a Land Called Honah-Lee,” involves a chance meeting at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a stuffed toy dragon and a connection made between children in both countries. But then there is fatal anti-aircraft fire and the story becomes one of survivor’s guilt.

By the time I was half-way through the next story, “Flowers in the Sky,” I saw that Hoang’s method of storytelling makes his words come alive, consistently—almost like watching a movie. All of my senses were engaged. This story takes place in Saigon in late 1972 and features a six-year-old boy, a red lantern, a harvest moon, and an exciting parade.

It’s a time when the Americans are withdrawing, the boy’s father is away from home fighting, and his mother’s hair is noticeably turning grey. This is a good example of Hoang’s writing at its best and shows off his ability to tell stories in a very moving manner.

In the title story, a Vietnamese woman living in Washington, D.C., thinks back over almost fifty years of marriage to the American she met in Saigon. Her memories stir up secrets, including one about a “mysterious crying woman.”

The title of the fourth story, “Of Crickets and Dragons,” should be enough to entice you into wanting to read this tale of two young boys killing time in 1968 Saigon.

“When Swallows Return” begins with pleasant memories of college life in the early sixties, including with love poems written on fancy stationery. The war then brings a time of separation that becomes permanent when a plane is shot down. But then, almost fifty years later, a mysterious phone call changes everything.

As I prepared to begin to read the final story, “A Cup of Love,” I wished there were a dozen more in this book. Then this one begins with an older Vietnamese woman saying to her young granddaughter, “Do you want to hear a story?” And the voice in my mind drowned out the voice of the young girl as I may even have said out loud, “Yes, Mr. Hoang, another story, please.”

But what I really want is another book full of stories by C.L. Hoang.

The author’s website is mulberryfieldsforever.com

–Bill McCloud

A Bend in the River by Libby Fischer Hellmann

A Bend in the River (The Red Herrings Press, 406 pp. $17.99, paper; $6.99, e book) is a meaty, satisfying historical novel set during the Vietnam War by crime fiction writer Libby Fischer Hellmann.

The plot hinges on the aftermath of an incident in Vietnam in the spring of 1968. Two teenaged Vietnamese sisters helplessly see their family killed by American troops who then massacre the rest of the people in the village. The girls flee to Saigon, joining streams of refugees following the Tet Offensive heading to South Vietnam’s capital.

While living in a refugee camp they find jobs at a restaurant. The younger sister, Mai, finds work as a hostess in a Saigon lounge that caters to Americans. Tam goes off to join the female fighting forces of the Viet Cong known as the Long Hairs. Mai, fourteen, wears makeup to appear to be seventeen, having been told that is the “perfect” age for the business. She works at the Stardust Lounge, named after the Las Vegas hotel. It’s one of the few air-conditioned bars in the city.

Tam goes through a two-week training camp, then is encouraged to use her sister to collect information from loose-lipped Americans. But she refuses to involve the younger girl in that dangerous activity. After Tam kills a man in battle, she realizes she “could no longer accept that she was more principled than the enemy.”

We learn through Mai that many Vietnamese people in Saigon fearfully followed the first manned landing on the Moon, concerned that the gods were being tempted and might decide to punish people on Earth. Her VC sister, virtually unaware of such things, is busy recovering unexploded bombs, driving a supply truck, and exploring the tunnels of Cu Chi.

Whenever Tam is asked what village she’s from, she refuses to name it, simply saying it’s “not there anymore. The Americans destroyed it.”

As the war begins winding down the sisters are affected in serious but different ways. Though they are estranged we feel as though destiny may bring them back together. The story goes back and forth, a few chapters at a time, telling each girl’s story. It’s an efficient way of keeping the reader’s interest.

Libby Fischer Hellmann

Hellmann says she was driven to write this book because “Americans still see the war through a strictly American lens.” In an effort to learn more about the Vietnamese during the war, she read novels such as Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s The Mountains Sing, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

The results of that research are obvious in the book, but this story, and the telling of it, are strictly Hellmann’s own. Part popular fiction and part literary fiction, this deftly written book is well worth reading.

The author’s website is libbyhellmann.com

–Bill McCloud

Tour of Duty 1967: The Paymaster by Fred Herrin

Former U.S. Navy Seabee Fred Herrin’s Tour of Duty 1967: The Paymaster (332 pp. $14.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), is a highly entertaining, fast-paced novel about the American war in Vietnam in 1967.

As a Marine, when I looked at the title, I thought, “Yikes! Someone has written a war story about how rough Navy disbursement clerks had it in Vietnam.” That made it difficult for me to open the book. But when I did, I found Tour of Duty 1967 to be a well-written and thoroughly engaging war story. I must admit, this old Marine (when I say “old,” I mean my seven-eighty- deuce gear was a short sword and a shield) was totally engaged in the intricate tale that Fred Herrin has written.

When I read the book’s description, I thought Herrrin used the same blurb writer that half the people writing books about the Vietnam War seem to have used. After reading Tour of Duty twice, though, I saw that the blurb was accurate—and an insightful survey of the novel: “This fast-paced story will take you to the jungles of ‘Nam whether you’ve been there or not. You will reel with the realization of what our young men endured. The daily shelling, the constant threat of attack, the fear and shock and noise, making even the silence deadly.”

Tour of Duty is a brilliantly written, almost lyrical, tale of fiction. Herrin has crafted a story of intrigue and espionage involving Russians, the CIA, the Vietnamese, and a payroll clerk. It is a fantastic story written with a sense of humor that involves a wit so dry it makes the Sahara Desert look like Central Park.

Fred Herrin in country in 1967

In one scene, for example, the CIA is trying to find an excuse to remove the protagonist, Brad Scott, from his duties for a few weeks and go on some undercover operations. The CIA agent (disguised as an ensign) tells Scott’s LT that he has been sent to the hospital ship Repose to recover from an accidental gunshot wound. When the lieutenant asks what happened, the CIA agent says, “Left testicle, it’s gone, sir.”

The lieutenant responds, “Not self-inflicted then?”

The witty dialogue hides the fact that you are often being led into a complex mental ambush.

Tour of Duty is a rollicking adventure told by someone who was there, and is a book that is pretty much impossible to stop reading. Fred Herrin writes prose of clarity and wit.

If you are looking for an entertaining read, look no further.

–Charles L. Templeton

Our Best War Stories edited by Christopher Lyke

The title—Our Best War Stories: Prize-Winning Poetry & Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Awards (Middle West Press, 234 pp. $17.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) edited by Christopher Lyke—sets up expectations that the book meets time and time again. The awards, honoring an Iraq War veteran killed in a training accident, are administered by Line of Advance, an on-line veterans literary journal. Lyke, a U.S. Army veteran of the Afghanistan War, is the journal’s co-founder and editor.

As for the poems, I especially enjoyed “Starling Wire” by David S. Pointer because of its great word flow and the use of words such as “microscopicesque” and “retro-futuristically.” I also liked Eric Chandler’s “Air Born,” which has us flying home with a “war hangover,” and Jeremy Hussein Warneke’s “Facing 2003,” in which he looks at the aftermath of war with a poem inside a poem. Randy Brown’s “Robert Olen Butler wants nachos” deals with desire.

“Soldier’s Song” by Ben Weakley is my favorite among the poems as it lyrically deals with time and worlds that exist in the tip of a bullet that barely misses your head. In “Havoc 58” Laura Joyce-Hubbard describes a grief-filled widowed pilot’s wife as “Dressed black-drunk.”

Some of the short stories that stood out were David R. Dixon’s “The Stay,” about a man who can smell death, and Michael Lund’s “Left-Hearted,” featuring a man with a rare heart condition. Other worthy stories include  “Bagging It Up” by Scott Hubbartt, and “Walking Point” by former Marine Dewaine Farria, my second favorite story in the book, looks at the warden of a small town prison in Oklahoma. Some of his memories are of men who became only “blood-soaked heaps of jungle fatigues on stretchers.” He uncovers a prisoner’s dangerous shank and realizes that prison and war “encourage ingenuity.’”

“Village With No Name” by Ray McPadden is my favorite short story in the book. It’s set in Iraq and looks at a group of men motivated to get their dangerous mission completed quickly because of an impending sandstorm. They shoot dogs “for no particular reason” and carelessly rip down electric lines as they drive through a village. Then, when one of the men is bitten by a poisonous cobra, and the medic says, “I ain’t no snake doctor,” they find themselves begging for help from an old woman and her jar of paste.

Christopher Lyke

In Travis Klempan’s “Some Kind of Storm” a newly discharged veteran finds himself in “the least hospitable place in America,” a Christian rock festival in southern Oklahoma. He encounters the Painted Man (a tribute to Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man) whose tattoos seem to come to life.

The most exciting story is “Green” by Brian L. Braden. In it, a helicopter pilot refueling in-flight suddenly sees tracers from ground fire arcing in the sky. In William R. Upton’s “A Jeep to Quang Tri” we’re aboard a fixed-wing Caribou in Vietnam about to land on a “small dirt strip with more VC than flies on a dog turd.”

Our Best War Stories contains many great poems, stories, and essays—all of them well-told. That’s as good a combination as you can ask for.

–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

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

The Best of Medic in the Green Time by Marc Levy

Marc Levy’s The Best of Medic in the Green Time: Writings from the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (Winter Street Press, 563 pp. $24, paper) is a kaleidoscopic book of stories written by Levy and others. Kaleidoscopically, these colorful stories burst out in all directions. They’re collected from a website that Levy, who served as a medic with the First Cavalry Division in the Vietnam War, started in 2007.

The stories, poems, essays, recollections, and reflections are divided into three sections: War, Poetry, and Postwar. There are more than seventy stories in all, three-fourths written by Levy.

Here is some of what we encounter in the opening section on the Vietnam War. A casualty of friendly fire, the first man Levy has to patch up. How to make morning GI coffee. Inflated body counts. Souvenirs taken from the dead. Medals awarded to appease grieving families. Coincidences that save lives. Men voluntarily returning to the war because they missed the adrenaline rush.

Several stories describe extreme combat at a personal level. A buddy dying in Levy’s arms. The attacking Viet Cong dressed only in loin cloths. Men giving themselves self-inflicted wounds to try to keep from returning to combat.

The poems are a mixed bag; some of the best are written by Levy. In “He Would Tell You,” for example, he writes:

 Let me never tell you

Things you cannot know

Let me never tell you

Things that won’t let go.

“Portrait of a Young Girl at Dawn” ends with:

They haul her in.

Beneath the whirling blades

She is spinning, spinning

She is floating away.

“Dead Letter Day,” begins: “He sent the letter to the guy’s wife/The same day,/Leaving out the following:”

We then learn the truth of the man’s death. Things his widow must never know.

One of the best poems, by Tom Laaser, is “Things I Think About at 11:11 on November the 11th”. In it, a man is attending yet another program for vets in a high-school auditorium and he’s conflicted. He senses that he does not want to be a veteran,

But the second that god damn flag is unfurled

And that crappy high school band strikes up you

Give way to unyielding patriotism of the highest degree.

I bled for this

You want to scream.

I am a veteran. This is MY country. I earned this freedom.

I earned

This day.

Marc Levy, left, at LZ Compton in An Loc, 1969

The third part, “Postwar,” includes a small section on combat humor, as well as one on how to talk to college students about the war, and one on the symptoms and treatments of PTSD because, as Levy writes, “Whatever you did in war will always be with you.” An especially interesting section includes comments from dozens of veterans describing what they think when some well-meaning person says, “Thank you for your service.”

It’s a phrase Levy considers to be “petty.”

This is a great book because of the well-written variety of stories and topics Levy covers. It’s also great because of how it’s put together. There is no reason to read the more than seventy chapters in order. Dig in and skip around any way you choose.

A kaleidoscope of stories awaits you.

Marc Levy’s website, Medic in the Green Time, is medicinthegreentime.com

–Bill McCloud