There Comes a Time by Jack Nolan

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Jack Nolan’s novel, There Comes a Time (Stillwater River, 306 pp. $16, paper; $7.99, Kindle), deals with the exploits of a group of men who refer to themselves as “The Greyhawk Six.” The guys trained together at fictional Fort Greyhawk Intelligence School and arrived together in Vietnam in September 1967 in Army intel. Nolan himself did a tour of duty in Army intelligence in the war.

The men wear civilian clothes and work different types of special operations, functioning as soldier-spies. A lot of their work involves typing and filing, but some sometimes they get involved in matters the CIA is supposed to be doing.

The sequel to his 2018 novel, Vietnam Remix, this is a tale of agents and double-agents. One of the men uses a cover in which he’s an employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. He also has a different, phony photo-ID and paperwork in case he needs an escape cover.

The nine chapters in this book are written as if they were individual short stories. Most could stand on their own. That includes the chapter involving one of the men who, after having his life saved, undergoes a religious transformation. It’s reminiscent of something that could have been in Catch-22.

The characters do not get involved in jungle fighting, though one survives being in a Jeep “shot to pieces,” and another witnesses a friend being shot and killed. The men frequently take Vietnamese mistresses, some in their early teens. As Nolan puts it: “In the pseudo-military realm of civilian-cover Intelligence, cohabitation with a Vietnamese woman was forbidden and, also, not uncommon.”

One of the men uses a position with the Catholic Church as his cover. Another opens an office supply store. All of them end up loving some of the Vietnamese people they come into contact with, hating others, and fearing a few.

Most of the story takes place around a fictional Military Intelligence Company’s headquarters in Saigon and at a big field station in the coastal city of Vung Tau, which Nolan describes as a “place that was immune to war by virtue of being a narrow peninsula surrounded by warships.” One of the men, upon returning home, continues to dream of the “pretty girls on the beach at Vung Tau.”

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Jack Nolan in-country

The plot also includes Vietnamese twin brothers who chose different sides in the war, but continue to love each other. In many ways, they represent the history of the divided people of their country.

This is a dense novel—not in page numbers, but in the depth of the story. It is not an action-adventure pulp-ish war novel. Written more in the style of Graham Greene, There Comes A Time was a joy to read.

–Bill McCloud

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 Oath by Dennis Koller

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Dennis Koller’s The Oath (Pen Books, 336 pp. $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is an exciting and fast-moving mystery thriller. In November of 1966, Tom McGuire was shot down over North Vietnam and spent the next seven years as a prisoner of war, returning home in 1973 as part of the first group of POWS released.

In 2000 McGuire is a homicide detective in San Francisco when an award-winning columnist for the city’s largest newspaper, Ruth Wasserman, is murdered in an unusual manner. After being shot and killed at close-range, her arms were trussed behind her in a way that McGuire immediately realized was the manner used by the guards in that long-ago Hanoi prison.

McGuire soon recalls that Wasserman, while a writer for the Village Voice, along with a small group of female college students, had visited the Hanoi Hilton. While there, the women betrayed a handful of American prisoners who had slipped them scraps of paper with their Social Security numbers. Three of the men immediately paid the ultimate price for trying to get that info back to the U.S. government.

The investigation into the Wasserman murder soon uncovers the deaths of a few of the other women. All were found with their arms bound behind them. McGuire realizes the killer is likely a former POW now on a tour of murderous vengeance. Furthermore, it may be someone he knew back then. And why does the governor of California appear to be the next person on the list?

Ultimately, McGuire’s aggressive investigation leads to higher-ups in his department who then conspire to take him off the case. Unofficially, he continues and, with the help of a street informant, bulldozes his way through secret government hit squads and deadly Vietnamese gangs.

Koller pulls off a difficult task as he alternates chapters between those written in McGuire’s first-person voice, and third-person ones describing the unknown perpetrator known as “the man.”

Throughout the story the reader is forced to think about the point at which a person with antiwar views becomes a traitor. But Koller also makes you aware of the unintentional war-time bombing of civilian areas and to consider what constitutes an “immoral” military order. There’s the legacy of the My Lai massacre.

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Dennis Koller

The book is divided into sixty short chapters. Just past the half-way point the story begins racing, literally against the clock, toward a satisfying climax. Some might see the book as pulp-ish wish-fulfillment tale. I didn’t.

For me, The Oath worked well as a straightforward thriller. And it kept my interest throughout.

The author’s website is denniskoller.com

–Bill McCloud

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 Travelers by Regina Porter

Regina Porter, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, did her Vietnam War homework for her new novel, The Travelers (Hogarth, 320 pp. $27, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Among other things, she interviewed a university historian who teaches a Vietnam War in Film class; read John Darrell Sherwood’s Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam Era; and researched the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to learn about the contributions of American female troops during the Vietnam War.

The novel begins with a two-page list of characters, which is kind of a key to the meaning of the book. Porter also offers a brief statement of time, which helps the reader some. “This novel,” she notes, “travels from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term.” The list of settings includes Long Island, New York, and the former South Vietnam. Even with this attempt to help the reader, though, the book sometimes comes across as a hodgepodge of events, characters, and places.

Mostly I enjoyed the book, but only by turning it into a game by keeping track of  all the references to the Vietnam War. They mounted up rapidly and made it possible for me to view The Travelers as a Vietnam War novel. The story deals with Agent Orange, the Tet Offensive, the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon’s war, the South China Sea, and Vietnam veterans more thoroughly than many literary Vietnam War novels do.

Porter places many of her characters in Vietnam where they do the things that young men were said to do during the war. Sex and drugs are given a lot of space, and the troops suffer psychologically by their involvement with those things. My painstaking mining of the text for Vietnam War references was rewarding, but likely would not be the way most readers will deal with the book.

The Travelers contains a fair number of photographic images, many related to the Vietnam War, including one of two sailors pressing pants on the USS Intrepid. The chapter entitled “I Know Where the Poison Lives” has a nice photo of the USS Oklahoma City and a powerful introduction to Agent Orange, including the line: “That shit ate up our daddy’s intestines.”  Porter goes on to discuss how Agent Orange affected Blue Water Navy veterans who served on aircraft carriers off the coast of South Vietnam during the war.

The role of African Americans in the Vietnam War is presented in the lives of the black characters, especially Eddie Christie, who serves on an aircraft carrier. During the war he is introduced to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and it becomes an anchor to his life in a sea of racial unrest.

One reviewer calls the book unlike anything she’s ever read. That’s true for me as well.

–David Willson

A Genuine American Citizen Soldier by Al Navarro

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The heart of a citizen soldier contains non-militarized republicanism filled with a sense of public duty and civic virtue, according to historians. American Revolutionary War soldiers typified that ideal. World War II warriors solidified the image because the citizen soldiers in that conflict fought for international freedom. The Vietnam War might have been the citizen soldier’s final endeavor with the ending of the draft in 1973.

Alberto (Al) Navarro assumes the mantle of a citizen soldier in A Genuine American Citizen Soldier (362 pp. $25, paper; $4.99, Kindle), an autobiographical novel in which he becomes Arcadio Polanco, a Panamanian who enlists in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War summer of 1966 to qualify for American citizenship. At the urging of his wife, Navarro wrote the book as a history lesson for his children.

Navarro’s novel primarily deals with 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War at the age of 21 when he was stationed at Hoi An with the 37th Signal Battalion. He admits to taking liberties with his descriptions of combat action and characters. As a result, Polanco’s insights into leadership, strategy, and combat go beyond a grunt’s point of view. For example, his description of action during the 1968 Tet Offensive has depth that reflects research. In particular, he lauds the battle skills of Republic of Korea soldiers.

Most emphatically, Polanco/Navarro understood his destiny. He earned promotions and medals by seeking and performing duties beyond his pay grade. Disappointment did not daunt him. Promised a non-combat assignment upon enlisting, he became an outstanding citizen soldier when sent into the war zone.

Navarro’s style of writing contains conversations and accounts of routine activities that occasionally slow development of the story line. Otherwise, he clearly delivers his true-to-life message of how a person must repeatedly overcoming obstacles to reach a goal.

Al Navarro—the president of Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chapter 343 in Houston—completed active duty in the Army after completing his three-year enlistment. He went on to serve in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard from 1972-2002, retiring as a Sergeant Major.

Following his naturalization process in December 1969, Navarro proudly says he became “a GENUINE AMERICAN CITIZEN.”

—Henry Zeybel

Legacy of War by Ed Marohn

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Vietnam War veteran Ed Marohn’s novel, Legacy of War (BookBaby,  340 pp. $16.95, paper), is a military thriller that delivers all the goods.

The protagonist, John Moore, is an overworked psychologist who has never gotten over the death of his wife from cancer. His bouts with depression and nightmares relating to his combat experiences in the Vietnam War have lead to his professional decision not to accept any patients who are veterans. That is, until now.

Dealing with a new client ends up with Moore learning a tale of the CIA’s war-time Phoenix Program gone wrong and a covered-up massacre, which gets him involved in a story of revenge—and a search for buried gold. Moore ends up grudgingly accepting an unofficial CIA invitation to return to Vietnam and help untangle a mind-bending mess. Before long, the hero says to himself, “This stuff sounds like a spy novel.”

He’s also aware that no one is telling him the complete story about anything. But he has his own reasons for getting involved.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam needs unofficial assistance from the CIA at the same time the CIA needs hush-hush help from the Vietnamese. It turns out that the reasons for Moore being pulled into this secretive, dangerous mess go back more than thirty years. Some characters are trying to forget things they remember; others are trying to remember things they’ve forgotten.

The first half of the book is filled with conversations and explanations, but once the story gets going, it moves with the speed of a piano falling out of a thirteen-story window. At almost exactly the halfway point Moore is back on the “ancient soil of Nam,” wearing a .45 caliber pistol in a shoulder holster. Before long, he’s once again “humping through the Vietnamese boonies.”

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Ed Marohn

References to the Vietnam War are sprinkled throughout the book, as when Moore walks down a hall in an apartment building and notes that it resembles “a dark tunnel with a light at the end.” The apartment he’s looking for is “number ten.” A suicide note left by a Vietnam War vet says, in part, “It don’t mean a fucking thing.”

Notable characters include Moore’s female associate, a buddy he’s stayed close with since they served together in 1969 and 1970, and a female member of the Vietnamese National Police.

You want beautiful women, you got it. You want shootouts, you got it.

Most of the action takes place over a fifty-day period in late 2002, early 2003. More than one surprise makes this one well worth sticking around to the end for.

Ed Marohn served with the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division in the Vietnam War. His website is writingsfromed.com

–Bill McCloud