The Big Buddha Bicycle Race by Terence A. Harkin

Terence A. Harkin’s The Big Buddha Bicycle Race (Silkworm Books, 446 pp., $6.99, Kindle) and its sequel, In the Year of the Rabbit, are set in Ubon, Thailand, where Harkin served with the U.S. Air Force’s AAVS Detachment 3 during the Vietnam War. He’s currently at work on his third novel, Tinseltown Two-Step, set in Los Angeles and Chiang Mai. Harkin, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, spent twenty-five years as a Hollywood cameraman. His time in the Air Force well prepared him for that job.

Big Buddha is a work of fiction, but it often reads like a memoir of Harkin’s time in Thailand. He titles the book’s segment with dates such as “April 1970-March 1970,” and provides detailed place names, such as the 136th Photo Squadron at Norton Air Force Base, California, HQ of the Aerospace-Audio Base, California, Acronym AAVS, pronounced “Avis” in Air Force speak.

The main character, Airman Leary, failed to read his USAF enlistment contract closely, overlooking the words “Needs of the Air Force,” so he ended up closer to the war than his recruiting sergeant said he would. As a result, the reader learns a lot about the real-life duties and experiences of airmen in a photo squadron.

Airman Leary, a cameraman with the 601st Photo Squadron in Ubon, decides that it is a propitious time to put on a bicycle race “to keep up unit morale” because Nixon and Kissinger are going to visit. A bicycle race of “lovable Americans riding through the countryside to win Thai hearts and minds” would send a message to the world when featured in Life magazine and Stars & Stripes.

There is some resistance from the North Vietnamese 599th Transportation Group so things don’t go quite as planned. It turns out that the race didn’t work well as a celebration of the war winding down—or, more accurately, as the war began to fail to wind down as promised. Where is that light at the end of the tunnel?  Let’s pedal our asses toward it as hard as we can and see what happens.

Harkin has come up with an enjoyable read. The book, however, offers more information about the workings of a Photo Squadron in Southeast Asia than any of us will ever need. Or want. We get some of the same popular culture references we’d expect from such a novel: John Wayne westerns, John Ford, Babe Ruth, and Muhammad Ali. But there also are some not so likely ones:  Harmon Killebrew, Pinkie Lee, Guy Lombardo, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Suzy Wong, Wilfred Owens war poems and The Anderson Platoon. 

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Terry Harkin

This is a perfect book for a movie lover to read if he also wishes to get credit for reading a book about our war in Southeast Asia. Did I mention that Airman Leary is a white kid from the Boston suburbs who is a drummer in a band and that he loves the music of Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and Sam Cooke?

That adds a layer of cultural meaning to the book. Probably the one thing this book does not need is another layer of cultural meaning. Consider it a bonus.

The author’s website is http://www.taharkin.net

—David Willson

A Long Healing Come Slowly by Jim Carmichael

 

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Jim Carmichael is a Marine who served a combat-heavy thirteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967-68. He survived the 1968 Tet Offensive and spent seventy-seven days at Khe Sanh. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1997. A Long Healing Come Slowly: A Novel about PTSD and its Effects on Suffering Individuals and their Families (LifeRich, 536 pp., $44.95, hardcover; $33.99, paper) is his Carmichael’s first novel. He intends to write a sequel.

The Preface describes this book as a fast read which it really is not. It is a large book that gives the history of multiple generations of a family with much involvement in America’s wars.  Also, the book has some axes to grind. For instance, the author claims that “This country is also rapidly outlawing the mention or open display of God or his Law.”  If our country has, I’ve failed to take notice of it.

In a nutshell, this novel, Carmichael tell us, is about “a family living with a veteran who has PTSD.” That is no lie, and the author totally nails what that is like, missing no nuance in describing it. He traces the origins through multiple wars as the book’s veteran characters are still alive and involved in the family. Novelists have that control.

The veterans in this novel have experienced and survived, sort of, the worst of America’s modern wars, including the Bataan Death March, and they are available and willing to testify about their trauma. Spoiler alert: I was shocked when the novelist killed off his main character. I sat and pondered and reread the chapter to make sure that it really happened. First time for me to get hit with that in a Vietnam War novel. A member of the Greatest Generation shoots himself with his pistol.

He was one of those veterans who came back from World War II and chose to work his demons to death by making a good life for his family. I am familiar with that method as that was how my father dealt with his Iwo Jima Marine Corps demons. Repression and demanding control and a smooth peaceful life. Until his war came home. His wife thought the war was over. But was it?

111111111111111111111111111111111111This novel makes the point that the war is never over. The military was not into anger management, so veterans had no idea what to do about their anger. Then the real cost of war becomes apparent. And often veterans are thrown to the wolves.

Prison is full of them. So are cemeteries.

This is an engrossing novel and I look forward to the sequel, which will, I hope, address the many loose ends left hanging at the end of this book.

Carmichael has done a superb job of showing how a veteran with PTSD can masquerade as a perfect family man, and how his cover can get blown by a disturbing incident and knock the whole apple cart of a perfect American family totally out of kilter.

Read this book and weep. I did.

The author’s website is alonghealing.com

—David Willson

 

 

For No Good Reason by Steve Banko

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Steve Banko dedicates his firs novel, For No Good Reason (No Frills Buffalo/Amelia Press, 318 pp., $14.95, paper), to the 1st Cavalry Division Garryowen troopers of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry who fought and died on December 3, 1968. Banko served sixteen months in Vietnam where he was wounded six times and received the Silver Star in addition to his four Purple Hearts.

For No Good Reason is a blood and guts Army infantry novel. My impression is that Banko drew heavily on his own wartime experiences for the narrative. In the acknowledgements he informs the reader that John Holcomb, his good friend, died saving Banko’s life on December 3, 1968, and that Holcomb was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Banko made it home to grow old and bald.

For No Good Reason namechecks both the usual and the unusual, including John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Sgt. York, Racquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, and Superman. Shit is burned in the rear and we are admonished to get the hell out of Dodge, and that we “gotta get out of this place.” The place is Indian Country where Pancho Villa is also making a stand. The “hurting kangaroo” I encountered was new to me. I predict I’ll not see him again.

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Steve Banko

The writing is made up of short sentences and punchy expressions. Here is a typical example:

“I was thinking of our next move when some screaming and shooting came from our right. Our two buddies got a bead on the machine gun when he opened fire on us and assaulted from behind it. It was like John Wayne and Audie Murphy came flying to our rescue. They were shooting and screaming and acting all kinds of crazy. When one gook fell from the tree, we got the message and started shooting too. When we stopped to reload, everything was quiet.”

Banko’s prose hooks the reader and never lets go.

I recommend this war thriller to those who have not overdosed on infantry action books.  It moves right along, never stopping for idle moments.

—David Willson

Asian Stained by W. Thomas Leonard

Now that I’ve read the stories in W. Thomas Leonard’s Asian Stained (BookBaby, 235 pp., $2.99, Kindle), I believe that the title indicates the author’s hard-held belief that the Vietnam War stains (or taints or besmirches) everyone who experienced it. This book starts off by introducing two Marines I assumed would be main characters, 2nd Lts. Kevin Charles Barrett and William Francis Kelly. Both are on the plane to Vietnam for their thirteen-month tour of duty. Leonard served as a Marine lieutenant in the Vietnam War in 1968.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to be surprised.

These two young men have been best friends since they were nine years old. They both had just graduated from Fordham, with scholarships, in 1967. Not exactly a great time to graduate from college. They both promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps and were assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, winding up in Dong Ha, in Vietnam in I Corps close to the DMZ.

The book then skips forward fourteen years to the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Two old men are at the wall—a Mr. Barrett and a Mr. Kelly. They find the names of their sons—Kevin Barrett and William Kelly—right at the top of the panel where they expected them to be. We’ve read five percent of the book, at least according to my Kindle.

The next section is entitled “Deserters.” However, we don’t get to follow Barrett and Kelly’s tours in Vietnam. I can deal with that, but what does the reader get? Lots of stories that follow. Including at least three dealing with Marines being incarcerated in brigs, with much detail about that confinement.

Twenty percent of the way through the book the reader encounters magical realism in the form of a vision or a fantasy of something that looks like a large aircraft with no wheels. It’s V-shaped and has the form of a wall. “It’s where the past, the present and the future merged,” a Marine says.  

This is a bleak book, made up of many stories, often of second-generation Americans who were raised in this country of opportunity and served in a war that horribly scarred them or killed them. The dozen or so stories are rarely happy ones, not even a little bit.

Once we get past “Deserters,” we are presented with stories in which hard-working veterans are fired unfairly or treated brutally. The stories are well-written but often hard to read. I, for one, hate to read about people who are cast into outer darkness for no reason other than the fact that someone with power can do so.

In one of the stories near the end of the book the character, Alex Kazakov, returns from his war minus his vision and three of his limbs. He is a character we get to know well, so his terrible scarring and crippling really hits home. Tears came to my eyes as I read the bad stuff that happens to him.  He’s lost everything but his mind. He learns Braille and does make something of himself, earning a Master’s in Creative Writing.

The overwhelming message of Asia Stained is a warning to everyone to avoid serving in the Marine Corps, especially in the Vietnam War. I didn’t need convincing; I am not going to recommend to my children that they join the Marines. My father was a Marine on Iwo Jima. One was enough for this family.

Read this collection of stories if you want to consume a really sad book of well-written tales about Marines. Otherwise, read something else. I’m having major trouble getting these stories out of my mind. And out of my dreams.

—David Willson

Escape from Saigon by Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo

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Michael Morris served in Vietnam in 1967-68 as an infantry sergeant in Northern I Corps, taking part in the Tet Offensive. Dick Pirozzolo served the war in 1970-71 as an Air Force information officer in Saigon where he helped conduct daily press conferences known as the “Five O’Clock Follies.”

Their novel, Escape from Saigon (Skyhorse, 264 pp., $24.99) deals in detail with the month of April 1975, during which thousands of people scrambled to get out of Vietnam prior to the North Vietnamese takeover. Lots of suspense is built in this novel as we get to know many of the various people trapped in what rapidly becomes a besieged city.

One of my favorite characters is a long-haired, hippie-looking former GI who returns to Saigon to rescue his Vietnamese wife’s relatives. One of them does not want to leave as she is convinced it would not be so bad to be in Saigon under the communists. Also, she has a lover she does not want to leave behind. Our hero speaks fluent Vietnamese, which he uses to his advantage.

wall02The American ambassador is portrayed as more than half crazy. He does not want to leave and sees no reason to do so. He takes some convincing.

The near-total confusion and breakdown of a great city is well portrayed and works well as a cliffhanger thriller. I highly recommend it to those who are interested in what it was like at the end in Saigon in April 1975.

I was safe at home in Maple Valley, Washington in April of 1975, but part of my heart was in Saigon, the Paris of Southeast Asia. I shed a tear when I heard the announcement on the radio, and I shed a few tears reading this fine thriller.

–David Willson

Three Joss Sticks in the Rain by Peter M. Bourret

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Peter Bourret served with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in the 1st Marine Division as a 81 mm mortarman in Vietnam from 1967-68. When he returned home, Bourret he studied at the University of Arizona. He has taught classes about PTSD for the past twenty-five years, and has written two books of poetry: The Physics of War:  Poems of War and Healing and Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares.

The 1968 Tet Offensive began soon after Bourret arrived in Vietnam. “The 1968 Tet Offensive, in particular,” he writes, “is key to the development”of his novel, Three Joss Sticks in the Rain (CreateSpace, 271 pp., $21.95, paper).  He doesn’t lie about that.

The story is not presented with an objective omniscient narrator perspective, but rather from four points-of-view: two young members of the Viet Cong—a brother and a sister—and two U. S. Marines, one an 18 year old and the other a 21 year old on his second tour of duty.

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The author

Bourret tries hard to communicate to the reader the complexities of the Vietnam War by presenting back-and-forth, alternating stories. Perhaps he overdoes that a bit—the patriotism and jingoistic attitudes of the VC soon seem like overkill. However, he does a good job showing us the ambushes and firefights from both ends of the action.

A thwarted rape is at the center of this complex novel. The Marine responsible later commits suicide. One of the characters states that “this war never seemed to go away.”  I wish he’d put himself in my place. I’ve been reading about the war since 1964. That’s too long.

We get the usual stuff of Vietnam War fiction in this novel: Ham and motherfuckers, John Wayne, Fighting Leathernecks, and Agent Orange. This Marine Corps novel, though, is a bit better than run of the mill. Read it and learn why you were smart not to be a Marine in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.

Three Joss Sticks in the Rain is one of the rare Vietnam War novels that takes great pains to show both sides of the war from the point of view of those who fought it. Peter Bourret, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, does an excellent job of doing so. Those who want to read a book that offers a good idea of what the VC were fighting for could do no better than to read this novel.

—David Willson

Replacements by Alan Quale

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Alan Quale served as a supply sergeant for an infantry company in the Vietnam War in 1967-68. His first book, My Dakota, is the story of his life on the Great Plains. Quale’s mother saved all her letters her son sent from Vietnam in a shoe box, which formed the backbone of Replacements: Endless War and the Men Sent it Fight It (CreateSpace, 252 pp., $12.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). Quale had a degree in journalism from the University of North Dakota before he was drafted into the Army.

Quale says this book is fiction. But then he says: “Replacements is my personal story from Vietnam. When writing it, I realized how fortunate I am. There were many other soldiers who also had stories to tell, but they didn’t survive. They were suddenly gone, and then they were replaced, and the war continued without them.”

This is a plainspoken book, with no flowery literary embellishments. It’s easy to read and well worth reading.

Alan Quale tells us that writing this book was therapy for him. He had a lot of bad dreams and his wife encouraged him to talk to her about them. He did that. His wife rescued him. He’d had the same nightmares over and over. What was his subconscious trying to tell him? His dreams were all about replacements.  He’d survived the Vietnam War, but many others had not.

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Alan Quale

“My nightmare shamed me and scolded me over and over again, and then it made me feel the last terrifying moments of life itself,” Quale writes, “a feeling likely experienced by several men in B Company when they were badly wounded.”

In Vietnam, he says, “you survive any way you can.”

Quale was stationed at LZ Bronco near Duc Pho in Quang Ngai Province south of Da Nang. It was a Viet Cong stronghold.  He arrived on December 6, 1967, at Duc Pho and enjoyed a full year of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath.

The shooting started when the sun set and seemed to never stop. But Alan Quale survived to write this great book.  We are grateful for his survival.

—David Willson