Searching for Gurney by Jack Estes

Jack Estes’ Searching for Gurney (O’Callahan Press, 328 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a welcome return to high-quality Vietnam War literary fiction. Estes served as a rifleman with the 9th Marines and later with a CAP unit during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of duty. He’s written two other books that deal with the war: A Field of Innocence (2014), a memoir, and a A Soldier’s Son (2016), a novel.

With Searching for Gurney’s first sentence—“JT woke, but they were still dead,”—the reader is immediately enmeshed in the world of a Vietnam War veteran’s post-traumatic stress. The veteran, JT, believes he should be able to handle his new civilian job because, Estes writes, “he’d led men into battle, run patrols, set ambushes, called in gunships, destroyed villages and hillsides. He’d fired rifles, machine guns, tossed grenades, and killed enemy soldiers so often that not killing felt odd. So this mailroom job was a skate.”

JT’s wife says he’s been different since he returned home from war. He never smiles and seems to carry a sense of danger with him. She “thought violence was when he punched a hole in the wall or broke a doorjamb,” Estes says. “That wasn’t violence.”

For his part, JT believes that no matter how much he and his wife fuss, God meant them to be together. “Why else would he have survived Vietnam?” Though he is too young to legally buy beer, he often goes to bars and drinks. After getting into fights, he thinks maybe “he’d be better off back in Nam.”

Coop served alongside JT. He’s back home just long enough to attend his grandfather’s funeral before he has to return to the war. While contemplating the funeral service, he thinks, “This wasn’t death. Death was that first patrol. This was sleep.” He also drinks in the morning so he won’t “stick a gun in his mouth.” And he’s glad to be going back because he “wanted war and didn’t care if he died. It was only when he felt at risk that he felt alive.”

Hawkeye completes the trio. He winds up in the Marines to avoid a jail sentence and quickly discovers in Vietnam that the “one thing you can always count on is that you can’t count on anything.” A fourth important character, Nguyen Vuong, joins the three Americans in the book’s third act.

The Vietnamese who are engaged in war with the Americans, Estes writes, believe they are fighting “in a great and noble cause that will be remembered until the end of time.” They read Shakespeare and share their poetry with each other.

Estes in country

The Americans pop amphetamines to stay alert, carry sawed-off shotguns, and live by the philosophy, “They say go. We go.”

They find peacefulness when they can “listen to the silence,” and are confused by the strangeness of hearing rumors of peace talks in the midst of fierce fighting.

In this extremely well-written, time-tangled story, the boyish-looking Lt. Gurney doesn’t make his appearance until the last few pages. He then quickly disappears. That triggers the search in the book’s title, and the plot wraps around itself in an intriguing and satisfying way.

Searching for Gurney doesn’t read like a comic book as so many war novels seem to. It conveys the impact of war through the lens of literary fiction. It’s also one of the few books I reread immediately after I finished it. 

Estes’ website is jackestes.com

–Bill McCloud

War Paint by Brian Lehman

War Paint (LuLu Publishing, 288 pp. $31.52, hardcover; $18.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Brian Lehman is the rare book that lives up to the hype on its back cover. Yes, this book really is “a quirky thriller and a naval warfare story like no other from the Vietnam War.”

Lehman served aboard a destroyer during the Vietnam War. His quirky story takes place during the waning days of American combat in the war, in early 1972, when a U.S. destroyer is used as bait by an unhinged fleet commander while a secret group of North Vietnamese commandos are making plans to board and take control of the ship.

The story begins in the present day when Jeffs Ryder gets asked that dreaded question by his grandson: “Grandpa, you ever kill anyone in the war?” This causes Ryder to begin to recall the most dangerous period in his military experience.

In the first months of 1972 the war is winding down—at least from the American perspective although thousands of NVA troops were crossing the DMZ into South Vietnam. Having been given the choice by a judge of going to jail or joining the military, Ryder enlists in the Navy and soon finds himself aboard the Navy destroyer Rattano sailing to Vietnam.

The fictional Rattano is affectionately known by crewmembers as “The Rat.” The ship moves with “the swagger of an aging but still dangerous gunslinger and, like that aging gunslinger, they wore their guns out where everyone could see them,” as Lehman puts it. The Rat’s captain thought he already had made his final deployment, and welcomes his return to action as a “bonus.” He thinks of the assignment as taking an obsolete destroyer into an obsolete war.

Brian Lehman back in the day

The North Vietnamese are aware of the Rat and, in fact, it may be one of the American ships that they’ve placed a bounty on. But most of the NVA troops are hungry, existing on meager rations, and are using military equipment that in some cases once belonged to the French. Many of the young Vietnamese, like many men on the Rat, do not understand the politics of the war and just want the fighting to end so they can go home.

The chapters begin with entries that could be drawn from a chronology of the war or from letters back and forth between men serving and women waiting back home.

I greatly enjoyed this glimpse into one aspect of Navy life as the war was winding down, especially because my two younger brothers were sailors at the time. I like reading about destroyers and the different jobs men held while on-board. And I liked comparing Lehman’s enlisted men’s official conversations with what they said when no officers were around.

Brian Lehman has produced a fine novel with memorable characters and realistic dialogue. It will remain in my memory, especially sentences like this one: “As he drifted off to sleep he could hear the aft guns come to life, sounding very distant as they began to hurl round after round across the peaceful sea into the southern outskirts of what was left of the city.”

–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

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

There It Is by Ken Harper

Ken Harper, a veteran of the Vietnam War, wrote two novels prior to his death in 2018. His wife was determined to get them published. After reading his first one, the mostly light-hearted, humorous There It Is (Luminare Press, 533 pp. $37, hardcover; $25, paper; $5, Kindle), I greatly look forward to the publication of the second novel in 2021.

Harper’s main character, Farragut Birdwell, tells his story in a self-aware, sarcastic, smart-ass manner. One of the delights of the novel is seeing Birdwell mature during his year in the Vietnam War.

Birdwell grew up in Baltimore. When he joined the Army he ended up being assigned to Fort Holabird, the home of the Army Intelligence Center, in his hometown.

Birdwell gets permission to start up a boxing club at Holabird, which he hopes will allow him to avoid “Saturday morning shit details.” When he tells his World War II Navy vet father about his pugilistic plan the only advice he receives is, “Hit more, get hit less.”

Birdwell spends off-duty time at an off-base coffeehouse, smoking weed and listening to literary discussions. Knowing he would likely be shipped to Vietnam, a buddy’s girlfriend says he should “go to Canada and avoid the whole shitaree.” Another buddy refers to Birdwell’s likely eventual destination as “Viet-fucking-death-comes-knocking-Nam.”

His job at Holabird involves doing background checks for security clearances. He gets pulled into some illegal activities, which result in him getting orders for Vietnam. It’s nearly the half-way point of the book when Birdwel larrives in country at a unit in Saigon that he’s told is “so far from the shit we can’t even smell it.” Before long, though, he’s sent into the field. At his new location he sleeps fully clothed at night, his rifle at arm’s reach.

Birdwell is not sure how encouraging an early letter from his father is when it says he should remember that “no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse.” Indeed, Birdwell ends up getting wounded in action. His job is coordinating intelligence, and he spends time gathering information on troop locations, friendly and non-friendly. He works a lot with maps until an officer tells him, “The map is never the territory—to know the territory means remaking the map. Which means we’re going into the territory.”

Ken Harper

Harper includes several jarring incidents of extreme violence that stand out from the way most of the rest of the book is written. That’s appropriate, as violent acts can often lead to a sense of shock, which seems to be what’s happening here.

Not only is Birdwell telling this story, but several times he lets the reader get into his mind. In those cases we read short chapters then immediately learn that what we just read didn’t actually happen. Apparently they were merely fleeting thoughts in his head. That makes for a wild ride.

This book is fun to read, with a chuckle on page after page. Even some of the darker moments are treated with humor because if we don’t laugh at them we might just go crazy.

Or, as we often said during the war: There it is.

The book’s website is harperthereitis.com

–Bill McCloud

The Last Vietnam Novel by Fred Vigeant

When I first picked up Fred Vigeant’s novel, The Last Vietnam Novel: Darling, They’re Playing Our War (336 pp. $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindel), I immediately thought I was about to enter the world of the Preston Jones’ play, The Oldest Living Graduate. Instead, I felt like Gulliver when he awoke in the land of Lilliput.

Above all, The Last Vietnam Novel offers a close examination of perspective and its role in how we determine our world views. While the book includes much humor and irony, the most potent message for this reader was the lesson in relativism.

The setting of Vigeant’s novel is the future. The year is 2054, and the author’s protagonist, Wonton Lively, the last living Vietnam War veteran, takes it upon himself to describe a future that the world has created. A world that takes absolutely no responsibility for the disaster it has created. As Wonton prepares for an interview with the “media giant Time/Netflix/Apple/Microsoft/Facebook/Pez,” he reminisces about life during the war in Vietnam.

One of Vigeant’s writing strengths is his ability to take the mundane, everyday routines of military life and turn them into magical stories that capture our attention and imagination. Another strength is Vigeant’s ability to write vivid dialogue in a tongue-in-cheek satirical style. The verbal exchanges between Lovely and his counterparts build complete images of the characters in the Last Novel. Wonton Lovely’s eloquence and post-ironic banter with a variety of characters sound natural and honest and, at times, reminds me of the work of the writer David Foster Wallace.

The story follows Wonton—the story behind the name “Wonton” is a great story in itself—Lovely’s recollections about ROTC, his active-duty, training, his first assignment in the states, and finally his tour of duty in the Vietnam War as he prepares for his interview. Fred Vigeant, a retired high school chemistry teacher, served as an Information Officer with the Americal Division in Vietnam in 1971.

His book is composed of one hundred fourteen chapters. Each is self-contained and reads like an O. Henry short story.

Fred Vigeant

In Chapter 28, “Major Alexander Seeks Respect,” Vigeant shows a deep understanding of the absurdity of the human condition. Lovely has been assigned to the Information Office at Ft Lee and has to report to the IO’s second in command, Maj. Alexander. 2nd Lt. Lovely has received orders for Vietnam and feels disposed to accept whatever requests the major has in mind.

The major wants Lovely to investigate why the guards at the entrance to Ft Lee do not salute him when he arrives on base. The conversation quickly devolves into one of those Catch 22 disjointed dialogues that use just about every form of ironic hyperbole, understatement, and rhetorical questioning imaginable.

The Last Vietnam Novel is a fast-paced and well-written book that I highly recommend. It goes down like Jack and Coke.

–Charles Templeton

Templeton, who served as a Marine Corps helicopter crew chief in the Vietnam War, is the author of Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam. His website is charlestempleton.com

Boot by Charles L. Templeton

Charles Templeton flew more than 150 missions as a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crew chief in the Vietnam War from 1968-69. His book, Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam (S. Dogood Books, 317 pp. $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is made up of 37 short, disconnected chapters. The chapter titles tend to be wacky and whimsical. For example: “The Artists of Dong Ho,” “Panty Porn,” “Ly Cu Chi,” “Our Body of Hue,” “On the Road to Shambala,” “The Wisdom of Wombats,” “Operation Corduroy Peach,” “Dien Cai Dau,” and “Mystic Foxhole Yacht Club Bowl.”

All the chapters of this excellent book are well-written and interesting. Many are humorous; some are horrific and intensely graphic. The book is also sprinkled with bits of poetry by Vietnam War veteran Bill McCloud. Those poems are deftly presented to support the narrative.

Boot appears to be part memoir (it often seems as though it was written from notes Templeton took at the time) and part phantasmagorical novel. The protagonist is George Orwell Hill, or G.O. The book tell stories of G.O.’s life as a Marine in Vietnam, what he learns about the country and its people, and the impact his war experiences had on for life.

The author effectively develops believable and sympathetic characters, while simultaneously communicating the diversity of experiences and backgrounds of these characters who have been thrown together to work as a unit during a war.

Charles Templeton

I have read the chapters of this fine novel multiple times and what I am always left with is Charles Templeton’s clear intent to communicate an honest, authentic picture of the Vietnam War Marine Corps experience, as well as the complexity of factors specific to the Vietnam War, and the consequences of war that last far beyond its supposed end.

I enjoyed reading all 37 chapters of this book (as well as the prologue and epilogue) and wish there were more.

I recommend Boot to those looking for a well-written, unique, and interesting literary look at one man’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

The author’s website is charlestempleton.com

–David Willson

A Quiet Cadence by Mark Treanor

Mark Treanor’s A Quiet Cadence (Naval Institute Press, 392 pp. $29.95) is a great Vietnam War novel.

Treanor—a Naval Academy graduate who led a Marine rifle platoon and commanded an artillery battery in the Vietnam War—tells the war and post-war stories of nineteen-year-old Marine Marty McClure. It begins on the day McClure sees “the dead man above the trees” as he is about to go into the bush. It’s just his fifth day in country.

McClure is an assistant gunner in a rifle company in which the company clerk is the guy with the most scarred face in the unit. The guys are all young. Some have young wives at home, and a couple of them are pregnant. The first Marine to greet him says, “Welcome to shit city.” McClure’s platoon is known as “the frat house” because every member in it went to college.

McClure is looking forward to his first firefight, but hopes it’s a small one. In fact, his actions under fire fall short of his expectations. He is slow to react as he watches a buddy kill “the running man.”

Back at the base camp after a few weeks in the bush means being able to heap mashed potatoes and real butter onto your battered tin chow tray. Then a shower and some sleep and before long you head back out again. McClure encounters the body of a VC and is surprised to see that it’s a young female wrapped in ammunition pouches, an AK-47 next to her.

“Her lips were raised in what looked amazingly like a pucker, as though she were waiting for a lover’s kiss,” Treanor writes, “her nipples incongruously hard.”

Treanor does a great job describing how claustrophobic it feels to tramp through the jungle fearing triggering a booby trap with each step. He also evokes the Marines’ frustrations as they try to ferret out an all-but-invisible enemy:

“We saw no enemy the day Corrie lost his leg.”

“We saw no enemy the day Cavett had his foot blown off and the new guy was ripped up by shrapnel.”

“We saw no enemy on the day Prevas lost his leg.”

The men want revenge, but McClure says there was “no one to kill, no one to pay back. We were all scared.”

When the wished-for action comes, McClure for the first time sees a buddy killed in a firefight. This makes things “somehow more personal,” and he becomes fixated on payback.

The last third of the book deals with McClure’s life after coming home from Vietnam and after leaving the Marines. What he didn’t leave behind was survivor’s guilt. He suffers through continuing nightmares as he attempts to escape the war. The quiet cadence of the title refers to his attempts to continue on with life by focusing on taking things one step at a time.

Mark Treanor

This is a powerful, unrelenting look at the experiences of a Marine serving at the height of the Vietnam War and the personal battles he continues to fight for decades after his return home.

A Quiet Cadence is a major work of combat fiction. It has my full-throated recommendation.

–Bill McCloud

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