Vietnam What? by Gianni Ruffo

Vietnam What? 2 (223 pp. $10.99, paper) by Gianni Ruffo is a fictionalized account of a Catholic priest’s adventures in the Vietnam War during multiple tours of duty in the late 1960s. Ruffo lives in Italy, and has had a long-time interest in the military history of the Vietnam War. This book is a sequel to Vietnam What? and begins where the first one ended, but with a new protagonist.

The story opens at Khe Sanh in early 1968. A Catholic Army chaplain is temporarily at the besieged combat base because his job has him traveling throughout South Vietnam delivering religious aids to chaplains of all denominations. The priest tells a soldier that his name is Bud. The man says, “As in beer? From now on, you’ll be Father Beer for me.” The priest readily accepts the nickname.

As the priest experiences attacks on the base he begins to question why the U.S. is waging the war. As he flies out of embattled Khe Sanh, he prays for the men remaining there.

The priest continues to see action. A helicopter he is in takes enemy rounds as it is coming in for a landing. Another time he’s a passenger in a cargo plane that crashes. He also has a Jeep blown out from under him, and is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a few days before being rescued. But it’s not just the priest’s adventures we follow. Several chapters contain action stories he is told by hospitalized troops he visits.

The priest takes a short leave to Vatican City, then is sent to Quang Tri, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. Then he secretly joins a Red Cross committee visiting three prison camps around Hanoi. This priest certainly gets around.

This book is not written in typical paragraphs, but presented in quite long ones, many covering a few pages. It seems almost to have been written in a stream-of-consciousness manner.   

In Vietnam What, Bud the priest is a fearless man who never hesitates putting himself in danger to help a fellow human being. It’s a shame this is a work of fiction.

–Bill McCloud

Finding Father by Peter S. Glick

In his strikingly compelling novel, Finding Father: Vietnam Fifty Years After (Sixty Degrees Publishing, 330 pp. $18.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), Peter S. Glick invites the reader to accompany not one but two men—an American and an Australian—as they set out to learn who their fathers truly were.

The American’s father died, leaving the son with a home filled with books, photos, and mementos he brought home from Vietnam, yet with no context for the son to appreciate how his father came to the possess them. The Australian’s mother was Vietnamese and had fled the country at the end of the war. But she never revealed to her son who his biological father was—only that he was an American serviceman. Seeking answers from opposite sides of the world, hoping for enlightenment of any kind, both men make their way to Vietnam.

Writing in a metaphysical, often haunting, style, Glick grabs the reader and never lets go. Half the story is told in the first person, so the reader, for example, is inside the American’s mind as he sifts through his father’s past. “I have found the old study,” he says, and that inspires a kinship with the first man, JJ, whose plight is more pronounced because he never knew his father.

Every step of each man’s journey is told in the present tense so readers experience each event, thought, and perception as the protagonists do. And while the two men do not meet until well into the story, the message is clear from the start: they have a connection and they will meet in Vietnam.

Peter Glick

Glick had a construction business Vietnam from 1965-75, before being forced to leave shortly before the war’s end. His time in Vietnam him the opportunity to learn the language and the history and culture of the country in a way few Americans have.

A French speaker, he became fluent in Vietnamese. So fluid, that once in a gathering where he was the only American present, someone told a joke at America’s expense, then blushed with embarrassment until someone else gestured toward Glick and said, “Don’t worry about him. He’s Vietnamese!”

Because JJ grew up in Australia and his mother wished to acclimate to her new home as much as possible, he speaks only a few words of Vietnamese. When he arrives in Vietnam, security forces take him for a spy and detain him for hours, abusing and humiliating him before finally letting him go. The American, however, quickly finds that his father’s commitment to learning about the people and the land during his tour opens doors that otherwise would have remained closed.

Despite the two men’s differences, the sobering fact remains that—as Glick shows very well in the book—even five decades later, wounds from the war remain deep, and because of this, the goal the men seek may come at a cost too high to pay.   

–Mike McLaughlin

The Rains on Tan Son Nhat by Christopher McCain-Nguyen

In The Rains on Tan Son Nhat (469 pp, $16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Christopher McCain-Nguyen offers a decades-long love story centered on the American war in Vietnam. The novel personalizes the ups and downs of the war years, which culminated in a great sense of loss and defeat. The author came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1966. A business entrepreneur with an interest in linguistics, McCain-Nguyen says his debut novel is a “25 years’ labor of love.”

The plot revolves around U.S. Air Force Maj. James Saito, a Japanese-Irish American intelligence officer in Saigon in 1967. He meets Emily Bach Mai, a young woman of Vietnamese and Jewish-German heritage who is an Air Vietnam receptionist manager and the airline’s Chief Public Relations Officer—a girl with “mysterious eyes.” The two fall in love, even though Mai is engaged to a physician named Chung who is likely working secretly for the communists. It’s not lost on James and Mai that they are both children of two heritages.

Chung tells Mai he must immediately leave for an indefinite period of time. While he is gone, she learns that he is, indeed, “an agent for the other side.” Meanwhile, James is readily accepted by Mai’s family and friends mainly because he speaks fluent Vietnamese.

Chung, working at a small, makeshift Viet Cong field hospital with only primitive equipment, begins developing a sense of political confusion. While Chung is away the relationship between James and Mai deepens.

McCain-Nguyen frequently steps back from the main storyline, as if hovering overhead, and offers background information about what was going on in the war. In doing so, he ends up giving the reader much of the history of Vietnam and of the American war. At important points in the story he tends to point out that what’s happening has been mostly dictated by fate with humans having very little control over their lives.

This novel, like the war, is long and sad. Some may find it hard to forget.

–Bill McCloud

Fighting the Bad War by Angelo Presicci

Angelo Presicci’s Fighting the Bad War (Night Horn Books, 232 pp. $24.95, paper) is a collection of seventeen autobiographical linked short stories that take place during the war in Vietnam and the immediate post-war years. Presicci served in Vietnam with the 11th Armored Cavalry in 1966-67. His writing style kept my interest as I went from one story to another.

In the first story, “The Tunnel,” we witness “a few men in one of those futile military chores like shifting dirt.” One guy likes to show off Polaroid pictures of “rotting, bloated bodies.” Two men, much to their dismay, are told to check out a tunnel.

The NCO giving the order says, “Take my word, it’s gonna be OK down there.” When asked how he knows that, he replies, “I don’t goddamn hafta to know. My job is giving orders.” In the tunnel the men encounter “tropical roaches the size of Arizona.”

In “Countdown” we read of a man who enlisted with the hope of avoiding combat. He is pleased to be given a job working on generators until he is told, “If you can take a generator apart and reassemble the damn thing, why not a machine gun?”

“All the Undecorated Heroes” features a pet monkey and a commanding officer who sees the war only as “dots and coordinates on maps and grids.” He says things like, “Charlie’s out there. Today’s our lucky day.” No surprise that talk of fragging inevitably comes up.

“Graveside Etiquette” consists almost entirely of Catch-22-type dialogue.

In my favorite story, “A Day in the Life of Sen Wah,” focuses on an 18-year-old Vietnamese girl in Xuan Loc. “She backed away out of the crowd and watched the Americans, some of them handsome and rugged, and bigger than their Vietnamese counterparts,” Presicci writes. “Wasn’t that what made them feel superior?”

Sen Wah is unsure about her father’s loyalties as she helps him serve water buffalo burgers to the Americans. We learn she wanted to teach, but U.S. bombs destroyed her school, killing some of the children in the process. “We were once normal innocent students,” she says, “and now we are normal with being at war.”

That story is followed by my second favorite, “Poker Night,” in which a poker game ends up providing more action than anyone anticipated.

Angelo Pressici

The stories in the second half of the book take place in the U.S. between the years of 1970 and 1986. They include some of the characters in the first group of stories and involve flashbacks, troubled attempts to return to school, the guilt of a man who avoided service, and the effects of the war on those who remained home.

This book can be read as if it’s a novel divided into two parts. It’s to Angelo Pressici’s great credit that both halves are equally well done. I hope to read for more stories from him.

–Bill McCloud

A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories by Philip Kraske

Anguish. There is no better word to describe the emotion inspired by the title piece in Philip Kraske’s A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories (Encompass Editions, 224 pp. $12.50, paper; $4.99, Kindle). In each of his stories Kraske deftly creates a sense of place and time, as well as a unique character. Far more than a backdrop, the context of each story is a living presence within the tale.

The most powerful one is the title story. A work of plausible fiction, “A Legacy of Chains” is set in a near-future America sliding into civil war. With domestic terrorism rampant and vast regions of the country breaking away, a few friends gather for respite from it all.

After dinner, the protagonist reflects on an experience a few years earlier when he suddenly received evidence that American prisoners of war were being held in Vietnam, nearly forty years after the war’s end. Then a State Department officer in Spain learns of a group of American refugees, all men in their seventies, in a town along the Straits of Gibraltar. Within hours he is standing face to face with the group and speaking with their leader, a U.S. Army surgeon captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965.

Staggered that these men are alive decades after they were reported missing, Klippen is further shocked to learn that the American government is determined to kill the men and those who helped them escape from Vietnam. As Klippen hurries to help, a third blow hits when he realizes that Milner has an agenda of his own.

The story “Pirates” also deserves attention for its haunting account of a woman’s life after escaping Vietnam in the 1980s to settle in Minneapolis with her family. Weary after years of enduring fraud, discrimination, and worse, she struggles with the consequences of a burglary at her flower stall in the city center. This unusual Christmas tale takes a surprise turn when the thieves return for second visit.

Philip Kraske

Highly effective overall, the book is occasionally uneven. Now and then characters recount what others have said and leave the reader uncertain about who is actually speaking. Certain words are deliberately misspelled to underline a character’s accent, stupidity, or both. These are minor points, though.

Kraske, who has lived and taught English in Spain since the 1980s and did not serve in the military, has created otherwise exceptional stories and some great writing, especially his detailed descriptions of the beauty of Spain, a country he clearly loves.

Lean and compelling, unsettling and inspiring, A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories is worth the read.

Kraske’s website is philipkraske.com

–Mike McLaughlin

Frenchy’s Whore by Vernon Brewer II

Vernon Brewer’s Frenchy’s Whore: A Teenage Paratrooper Goes from High School to the Point of the Spear (BookBaby, 242 pp. $16, paper; $4.99, Kindle), first published in 1994, is an autobiographical novel based on the author’s 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War with Alpha Company in the 4th Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. It contains snappy dialogue and Brewer shows off a camera’s eye for war action. From beginning to end, the book made me hold my breath, waiting for more.

The title appears to be a loose metaphor for the French and American wars in Vietnam. The plot includes the U.S. stepping into the political vacuum following the 1954 French defeat, and deals with the illegitimacy of the French and American efforts to force democracy upon the people of Vietnam.

As Brewer begins to weave his story, he offers a disclaimer regarding “language-of-the-day” and the widespread use of marijuana by most of the enlisted men in the book. The dialogue borders on the theatrical, including pronunciations and the nicknames of nearly all of the characters. 

The book develops around its subtitle as the main character goes from a home town loser to an Airborne trooper who longs for battle, enemy contact, war souvenirs, and a way to prove himself and come home a war hero.

One of the troopers in the story, nicknamed Frenchy, has an ongoing relationship with a Vietnamese prostitute. After he is gravely wounded, losing both legs in a rocket attack, she wants nothing to do with him, as he no longer represents a way to escape to America.

Brewer, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wrote his book seemingly from his faultless memory for dialogue and the details of daily life of a group of Sky Troopers. This is a well-written book, though using the same font size for the footnotes and the text was a bit jarring.

Still, Frenchy’s Whore is a worthy effort and a good read.

–Tom Werzyn

Legacy of Evil by Ed Marohn

With Ed Marohn’s Legacy of Evil (BookBaby, 340 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) you can pretty well cash in your expectations of a thriller. Like true thrillers, this one covers a great deal of ground in a compressed period of time. In just one month the story moves from the U.S. to the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and the Arctic, then back to the U.S. That quality leads to a tense feeling of claustrophobia even though the action takes place almost entirely outdoors.  

Ed Marohn served in the Vietnam War with the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he has taught military history at the University of Nevada. His main character, John Moore, is a psychologist who enjoys reading action-adventure novels and works as a civilian contractor for the CIA evaluating its personnel, mainly looking for evidence of PTSD. Moore commanded an infantry company during the war in Vietnam and still has pains from a gunshot wound in his shoulder. He also has nightmares with battlefield flashbacks.

Legacy of Evil, the sequel to Marohn’s Legacy of a War, takes place well after the Vietnam War when Moore is caught between two men fighting over a leadership position in the CIA and wonders, “Are we in a spy novel?” He’s occasionally pressured to go into the field and has just returned from a trip to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He has now been asked to deliver a personal letter from his boss to a notorious woman in Europe. He has a “combat instinct honed by Nam,” and carries a Sig Sauer P229 DAK.

Before long, there are neo-Nazis with big plans, a kidnapping, and a lost atomic bomb. Then the chase is on. This involves following a map that has Moore dogsledding into the Arctic where he relies on a U.S. Army Model 27 compass. “The compass was an old friend,” Marohn writes, “cherished in those dark and dank Vietnamese jungles of the war. In the days of killing and dying, it grounded me to the earth, giving me sanity in an otherwise crazy world of destruction. Its math and magnetic science provided rationality in a living nightmare.”

The chapters that involve a harrowing chase in the twenty-four-hour-light north of the Arctic Circle together would make a great short story.

At the beginning I found the writing to be somewhat stilted, more like Marohn was providing information rather than spinning a story. But once the plot started moving, the writing moved this reader along at an electrifying pace. This is a taut thriller with an especially satisfying ending.

The author’s website is writingsfromed.com

–Bill McCloud

Landing Zone by Carlos Arce

Carlos Arce, the author of the multi-volume Landing Zone (983 pp. HEDSA Publishing, Kindle), describes the work as an “illustrated serial-novel about the Vietnam War written by a disabled combat infantry veteran who served in the war during 1969-1970.” The novel is divided into seven volumes with 41 chapters and tells Arce’s substantially autobiographical story. While they are tied together, Arce says that each chapter is also intended to stand as its own story.

What sets this novel apart is the inclusion of 642 photographs, drawings, and graphs pulled from the Internet. The illustrations give the novel an encyclopedic nature. When Arce mentions a weapon in his story you can be sure you’ll see a picture of it on the next page. Same with Agent Orange, snakes, and other Vietnam War things he encountered in Vietnam.

In Volume 1: The Beginning (which we reviewed in these pages in 2016), main character George Vida knows what’s in store when he receives orders to report to Oakland, California, in July 1969. He says he felt “afraid to be afraid.” He had enjoyed his Army training, though, and thought it was “fun” to shoot an M-16 in fully automatic mode and to jump out of airplanes. After his arrival in South Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut, the air base the base comes under rocket attack. Vida is knocked to the ground and a guy he had made friends with on the plane is killed.

He’s assigned to the First Air Cavalry Division and is sent to another reception center where he says he received “a crash course on how to go to war.” He’s told to not trust any Vietnamese and quickly realizes that just about everything around him is an extreme threat. He doesn’t feel better when he’s told he’ll be spending most of his time in the jungle.

In Volume 2: The Shock, Vida’s sent out into the field and it’s not long before he sees engages in hand-to-hand fighting with an enemy soldier that involves the two of them biting each other. He casually notes that in hand-to-hand fighting Americans have an edge because of their larger stature.

In Volume 3: Survival, Vida finds himself aboard a helicopter with two uncooperative Vietnamese prisoners. He watches in horror as one of them is thrown out. That’s an awful lot of action for one guy to have experienced in such a relatively short period of time. Arce addresses that by saying the story is based on things he saw and experienced, as well as things other soldiers told him.

One thing that’s similar to many other Vietnam War stories is that the moment Vida meets an Army nurse she is immediately attracted to him.

Volume 4: Resignation finds Vida enjoying his R&R in Bangkok. The three remaining volumes get us back into action, along with ruminations about what the war was really all about. Arce provides a brief history of the war, talks about why the U.S. did not succeed, and goes over our overall military strategy.  

The concluding volume has Vida returning home in mid-1970. We then read, decades after his service, about his feelings about the antiwar movement, the use of Agent Orange, and present-day veteran suicides.

With its illustrations, stories, and historic information, this book is a one-stop shop, especially for those with little knowledge about the Vietnam War.

Carlos Arce concludes this book, which was a labor of love for him, by saying: “I will struggle with my memories and the pain that will always be there, but I was proud then and I am proud now. I was an American soldier and I did what I had to do.”

–Bill McCloud

Sunshine Blues by Bob Calverley

In his new novel, Sunshine Blues (526 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), Bob Calverley tells two stories that are not really all that connected —except for the fact that they take place at the same time. Calverley was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1967 and served a 1968-69 tour in Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh.

Sunshine Blues, his third novel, is set in 1968. Half of it centers on Jimmy Hayes, a crew chief in an Army assault helicopter company. While he’s half-way through his tou, his sixteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, Gloria Doran in Detroit experiences a trauma-causing incident and then discovers that her life is being threatened. Plus, Gloria still has whip marks on her back she received at the hands of her evil stepfather. She experiences PTSD every bit as much as her boyfriend will.

Gloria witnessed two deaths in Detroit while men were mysteriously dying around Jimmy in South Vietnam. While coming to the end of a difficult pregnancy, Gloria learns that Jimmy is missing after surviving a helicopter crash that killed three other men. She doesn’t know that he’s been captured by some sort of Vietnamese militia unit and taken deep into a tunnel complex where he will be put on trial for murdering Vietnamese civilians.

Bob Calverley in country

That scene comes off as a surreal incident that works well, especially when you consider many of the bizarre aspects of the American war in Vietnam.

Calverley says stories he heard at reunions of his Vietnam War unit are in the novel, though he admits that “Year after year the stories keep getting better. The line between fact and fiction blurs with the passage of time. Or maybe it’s the consumption of the adult beverages.”

The novel includes a maniac who likes to chop off fingers, arson, child abuse, drug trafficking, flight crew fatigue, illegal nightclubs, money laundering, murder, organized crime, police abuse, sabotage, suicide, and international sex trafficking. It’s divided into more than sixty short chapters that keep the action moving—and moving around. At one point three consecutive chapters are entitled “Cu Chi,” “Detroit,” and “Nui Binh.” Plus, each story could stand alone if told separately.

All of which makes Sunshine Blues an unusual book. I found the sections on Jimmy’s Vietnam War experiences to be quite intriguing—and the strongest part of the novel.  

The author’s website is bobcalverley.com/sunshine-blues

–Bill McCloud

The World Played Chess by Robert Dugoni

The World Played Chess (Lake Union Publishing, 400 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $10.pp, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is an important work of Vietnam War fiction even though it’s being marketed as a coming-of-age story (“a young man’s unlikely friendship with a world-weary Vietnam veteran”) to attract more readers. Best-selling author Robert Dugoni did not serve in the military, though he has had a long-time interest in the Vietnam War and its veterans.

Dugoni’s main character, Vincent Bianco, is an attorney with a wife and teenage children. As his son approaches his eighteenth birthday, Vincent thinks back on his life at that same age forty years earlier. His thoughts center on two Vietnam veterans who were on a construction work crew he joined in the summer of 1979 before going off to college.

One of the veterans, William Goodman, who served in the Marine Corps, opens up to Vincent about his wartime experiences as the summer goes on. Goodman kept a journal of his year in Vietnam and, though they’d no contact for decades, he sends it to Vincent because he’s never forgotten that when Vincent would ask him about the war, he would listen attentively. That leads Vincent to dig out a journal that he kept during that summer.

Vincent reminisces about what he learned about the war from Goodman all those years ago and starts reading his Vietnam War journal. He finds the daily entries funny, poignant, sad—and horrible. The novel alternates between Goodman’s 1968 stories and Vincent’s in 1979, and the plot swirls around the stressful year Goodman spent in Vietnam, the lessons he learned, and how those lessons were passed along to a father and his son.

Be prepared for a gut-punch of an ending that takes place at the top of Hill 1338, somewhere in South Vietnam, in which Dugoni searingly sums up America’s experience in the war.

Robert Dugoni writes about the war as if he had been there, though he wasn’t, and that’s not an easy thing to do. In addition to doing a ton of research, a novelist can only pull that off if his or her heart’s in the right place. It’s evident that Dugoni cares about Vietnam War veterans and the unique things that can still be learned from them.

This is the best novel dealing with the Vietnam War and its ongoing legacy I’ve read in a long time.

Dugoni’s website is robertdugonibooks.com

–Bill McCloud