Firebase by Mark Anthony Sullivan

Mark Anthony Sullivan served in an Americal Division field artillery unit in Vietnam. In Sullivan’s Firebase: A Novel of Wartime Suspense and Romance (306 pp., $14.75, paper; $5.99, Kindle) the main character, Mike Ward, also serves with that unit at a forward firebase.

Ward arrives in the Vietnam War zone as troop withdrawals are in full swing with the Nixon administration’s policy of Vietnamization. It’s May 1970 and Ward is in the middle of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend who thinks that he should have stayed home and been a good boyfriend. That’s how she sees life.

Mike Ward had the option of serving in an Army Reserve appointment. His high morals caused him to see that as a copout, so off to Vietnam he goes.

He gets assigned to the 23rd Infantry Division (the Americal) out of Chu Lai. He doesn’t realize until later that that’s the Americal’s numerical designation. The book provides much detail of what the life of a Spec. 4 assigned to field artillery in the Vietnam War is like.

There’s also a lot of detail about the girl he left behind and her anger at him for choosing the Army over what she saw as his obligations to her. The entire novel is told in letter format and Sullivan makes it work well. He tells us that he had plenty of letters to work with and that he relied on them for information, tone, and other details.

His evaluation of our efforts in Vietnam is simple: “We’re going absolutely nowhere.” The difference between the Vietnam War and World War II makes it difficult for the characters to see progress. No land is captured and held. A war measured in body counts seems to be a war with no progress.

The Paris Peace Talks are discussed and dismissed as pointless as the participants could barely decide on the shape of the table, let alone on anything of importance.

John Wayne gets a mention or two, and shit burning is discussed, as does Agent Orange. My Lai also comes up, as it was attached to the Americal Division in peoples’ minds. Even though it took place when our main character was home in law school, he somehow gets blamed.

There is a lot of ill feeling aimed at soldiers serving in the war. The notion seems to be that if they only chose not to go into the Army, there’d be no Vietnam War. As if it was that easy.

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This is a serious novel, well-written and well-organized. It has an ending unlike any I’ve encountered  before in Vietnam War fiction. Mike Ward’s girlfriend manages to redeem herself, at least in my eyes, by doing something that doesn’t just border on magical realism, but tests my brain in all possible respects. I won’t spoil it for the prospective reader.

Suffice it to say that the ending took my breath away. I read it over and over again, trying to get it straight in my mind. I never did manage to wrap my mind around it.

That’s my fault, I’m sure.

—David Willson

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Nam: The Story of a Generation by Mel Smith

Mel Smith was born in Helena, Montana. He joined the Naval Reserves in 1966 and went on active duty in July 1968. He served on the destroyer U.S.S. Taylor out of Pearl Harbor as a member of the deck force, the tough ship maintenance division. This crew is sometimes referred to as deck apes. He transferred to the U.S.S. De Haven on a West Pacific tour and got an early out in April 1970.

Smith’s novel, Nam: The Story of a Generation (First Steps, 360 pp., $33.64, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $6.99 Kindle), follows the lives of three young men—two Americans and one North Vietnamese, a starry-eyed patriot.

The main character, Mark Cameron, has a best friend named JT, who does not make it. Their counterpoint character, Dat, becomes a general on the other side. Cameron spends his tour of duty in Vietnam in the Brown Water Navy, on a PBR.

His backstory is based on that of the author. The book jumps around chronologically, but the sections are clearly labelled as a kindness to the reader. The book starts in 1948 and 1998, and then leapfrogs back and forth through time to give a full picture of the Vietnam War Generation. The story ends in California, in August 1998.

Mark Cameron intersects with Dat, who had been a North Vietnamese general, and is now a civilian wearing a $600 suit. Dat is now known as Van and owns a string of convenience stores. The encounter is totally friendly and rings true to this reader’s ears.

As is not unusual in such a book, John Wayne’s name pops up more than once. Plus,  there is a big stateside scene in which one of the characters returning home from the war is called a baby killer and has eggs tossed at him.

Mel Smith

This is one of those rare semi-autobiographical American Vietnam War novels that includes a substantial cast of well drawn and realistically portrayed Vietnamese characters. In one realistic scene among Americans in Vietnam, the main character confronts a c-ration can of ham and limas and is warned off. He winds up being served a ham sandwich instead by a minor character who has access to the mess hall.

I highly recommend this well-written book.  It held my attention and more.

—David Willson

Four Corners from LBJ by Marty Beebe

Marty Beebe, who served in the Vietnam War in 1969-70, is the author of the novels Orange Bug White Fender and Cussy Rode a ’34.  His latest book, Four Corners from LBJ (CreateSpace, 224 pp., $9.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is one of the strangest books I’ve read about the Vietnam War.

Beebe tells us it is a work of fiction. It seems to be a work of magical realism. The first half is mostly about a riot at LBJ in Vietnam. In this case, “LBJ” stands for Long Binh Jail. Spelling and sentence structure in this novel are erratic.

Daniel Beebe did the cover of this book in which a prison lookout tower dominates the top half, separated from the bottom half by concertina wire. The bottom half contains a map of the Four Corners area of the Southwest United States labeled “Navajo Reservation.”

Also listed on this map are the Ute Mountain Reservation, Mesa Verde National Park, San Juan National Forest, McGhee Park, Sunray Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Shiprock, and Farmington. I list them because they are the only way I can get at the subject of the second half of this strange book.

I’ve read a lot about riots in LBJ (the jail) and believe the pages devoted to that subject are fairly accurate. There is a lot of violence on both sides, including the guards and the inmates. Fire hoses and black rubber hoses are used for beatings.

Private Baker is the featured character in the novel and sort of holds the narrative together. The other main character is “a full-blooded Apache” named Sau who serves the purpose of being a mystical and spiritual guide to Baker when he is magically transported from LBJ in South Vietnam to the area of the United States featured on the map.

This is a short book with large print. It is one of the few I’ve read that attempts to deal in a serious way with riots in prison camps in South Vietnam. If you are interested in that elusive subject, read this book. It doesn’t take long to read. But be warned, it is fiction.

—David Willson

Vietnam Warrior Voices by Mark Masse

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Mark Masse is a professor of literary journalism at Ball State University. His new book, Vietnam Warrior Voices, Life StoriesCaputo,  Del Vecchio, Butler, O’Brien (Mark Henry Masse, 94 pp., $5.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is a work of literary journalism. It is based on a series of interviews Masse did with the four “warrior voices” of the subtitle.

In about seventy pages of text, Masse gives the reader the pith of what these writers have tried to accomplish in their books.  He gives the impression that all four have been tormented, angry souls at some time in their lives. Maybe that is a characteristic of most authors who write books that deal with war. War is not a happy subject.

I got a good sense of what these men have accomplished in their lives and in their writing careers. Plus, this book would have motivated me to read their books—if I had not already read all of them. I am motivated to reread John Del Vecchio’s novel, The Thirteenth Valley, as I didn’t much like it the first time I read it a long time ago.

If I were still teaching a Vietnam War literature course, I would use this book as an introductory text. It would work well for that purpose.

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Mark Masse

I’ve met Bob Butler and Tim O’Brien, and my impression of them and of their work is about the same as Masse’s. So I figure that the portraits he draws of the other two, Del Vecchio and Philip Caputo, are equally accurate.

I find myself asking why I’ve not met Caputo or Del Vecchio. I don’t know; maybe I lacked the motivation. Certainly both of them have been out on the road giving talks and signing books—the purgatory of authors who wish to sell books.

I suggest buying and reading at least one book by each of these guys—they are worth that much effort.  They have all worked hard at their craft and have achieved some notice, even as fame and fortune have—by and large—eluded them.

The author’s website is markmasse.com

—David Willson

The Mighty Jungle by John A. Bercaw

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John A. Bercaw served in the U. S. Army, as well as in the Marine Corps and the National Guard. He spent a year in South Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and his experiences form the background of The Mighty Jungle (CreateSpace, 154 pp., $8.75, paper; $2.99, Kindle). In addition to this thriller, Bercaw is the author of Pink Mist, a memoir of his tour of duty in Vietnam.

This novel has two main characters: a warrant officer pilot near the end of his time in the Vietnam War, and a young and very green infantry lieutenant. When their helicopter is shot down and crashes in the jungle, all the others are killed and these two characters are thrown together to attempt to evade capture and survive in that very hostile environment.

Bercaw is very graphic about what they encounter in the “mighty jungle.” Insects and other creepy crawlies the least of it. Spoiler warning: The green lieutenant does not make it. The warrant officer manages to barely survive capture (and torture) by the enemy, and ends up back in the safety of the U.S. Army. He is treated fairly and with compassion, which surprised me.

Dieter Dengler—the Navy pilot who was shot down, captured, and escaped his captivity in Laos—is cited. The Mighty Jungle has much of the flavor of Dengler’s classic book, Escape from Laos, and I was impressed that Bercaw had done his research so well.

This is an engrossing and exciting thriller and I very much enjoyed reading it. The song, “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” is quoted and never has it been more appropriate. The extreme misery of being lost in a jungle has never been portrayed with more intensity and realism. I put the book down with gratitude that my tour of duty in Vietnam did not involve any such adventure or risk.

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Bercaw in country

The aspect of the novel that unnerved me the most was the worms. The two characters eat worms and also produce them from both ends of their bodies.

I figured that the worms would do them in. I was half right. The medical personnel who work on the survivor are much focused on the small creatures who inhabited his body.

Showers, soap, and poison soon bring them under control, but the psychic trauma is not so easily dealt with.  Time and the love of a good woman helped some.

There’s a lesson in that.

—David Willson

Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis

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Raeford’s MVP (CreateSpace, 452 pp., 16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third Vietnam War-themed novel by Rick DeStefanis, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72.  We reviewed the previous books—Melody Hill and The Gomorrah Principle on these pages.

This book focuses on Billy Coker, who is 19 years old and erving in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the war. He left behind the love of his life, the chubby Bonnie Jo Parker, in Raeford, Mississippi. Bonnie happens to have an amazing voice and a pretty face, the way many big girls in small American towns do.  She gives him a good luck piece to wear. Spoiler alert: It does the trick.

When Billy arrives back home, he struggles with psychological problems and with connecting with his old friends. Some of his best friends make an effort to help him, a very good thing.

But the war becomes Billy’s life and he has a terrible problem shaking it off. The fog of battle gets a mention. So does John Wayne.  And Puff the Magic Dragon. Agent Orange is not ignored.

Billy finds a honkytonk that has an “old Son House tune on the jukebox.”  I would love to find that place. I’ve never encountered Son House on a jukebox.  Wilson Pickett sings “Land of a 1000 Dances,” and Jane Fonda gets kicked around years before she takes her trip to North Vietnam.

DeStefanis has written an honorable book that will hold most readers’ attention.

The author’s website is rickdestefanis.com

—David Willson

Melody Hill by Rick DeStefanis

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Rick DeStefanis served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne from 1970-72.  He brings his military experiences as a paratrooper and infantry light weapons specialist to every page of his novel, Melody Hill (CreateSpace, 364 pp., paper; Kindle), a prequel to his award-winning The Gomorrah Principle).

Duff Coleridge leaves behind Melody Hill, Tennessee, when he joins the Army and heads to Vietnam. While in country, he somehow manages to stumble into the shadow warrior realms and gets involved in black ops. A beautiful woman is, of course, involved. And naturally she is half French and speaks perfect English.

Does she really love Duff, or is she just using him to get information for her own devious purposes? Duff’s immediate boss seems to be as crooked and untrustworthy as possible, and Duff seems headed for an early grave in the jungles of South Vietnam.

Duff’s boss, codenamed Spartan, is dealing black market arms to the VC, and that is not even the worst of his sins. Duff, however, can’t get to the bottom of it all without placing himself at ultimate risk. Will he carry on, expose Spartan, and get the girl, or will he end up dead in a water-soaked ditch with a bullet in his head? You might be surprised at the answer.

If you read and enjoyed The Gomorrah Principle, this book will be right up your alley.  John Wayne gets two mentions, but Rick DeStafanis is much more interested in pop songs such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Moon River,” and “Sea of Love” than in 1950s cowboy movie stars. Which is refreshing.

The author’s website is http://rickdestefanis.com/vietnam-war-novel-melody-hill

—David Willson