Jack Tucker says his novel, The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover (220 pp. $24.95, paper), which is set in California, Thailand, and Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is based on people he knew, things he did, and stories he heard. It’s a wild story centered on film editing and the sexual adventures of a young man turned loose on the world.
Tucker himself is an accomplished Hollywood film editor who joined the U.S. Air Force at 19 and served in the Vietnam War at Korat Royal Thai AFB and Tan Son Nhut Air Base analyzing bombing and gun camera footage taken by cameras on U.S. aircraft. In his spare time, Tucker and another airman made a short film called The Hunter.
Here’s a summary of the plot of The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover: Frank Jones serves four years as a film editor in the Air Force (as his creator did), including months at bases in Thailand and South Vietnam. After coming home, he goes to work in southern California making porn movies. While he’s at it, he has sex—lots of sex. We get many descriptions of the physical attributes of the women he has sex with, as well as descriptions of many sex acts.
While in the Air Force he learns filmmaking, focusing on editing. He’s taught that “every cut should show something new,” and “you’re telling a story with pictures.” He volunteers to serve in the Vietnam War to get off of Vandenberg Air Force Base. When he meets a young woman who tells him she is in the Peace Corps, he replies: “Really? I’m with the War Corps.”
He describes Bangkok as a city constantly emitting a “sickening smell of rotten garbage,” he’s quickly taken by Thai women, deciding he will “try them all.” He becomes aware of a popular saying, “You know anyone can be a great lover here for three dollars,” which inspired the book’s title. He is not ashamed to drive the price below that on occasion.
Once at his duty station at Tan Son Nhut he starts each day with a shot of Jim Beam in his coffee. His job is to review, and occasionally make prints of, film footage from bombing runs and other flights. The book includes details about film editing.
As for Jones’ thoughts about the Vietnam War, Tucker writes: “I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t hate this place, but I hated our being here. History and politics had conspired to place us at the wrong place, at the wrong time and on the wrong side.”
Jones’ adventures are told in a crude manner, as if Tucker were sharing them with his buddies at a bar after a few beers. I imagine this was intentional.
The book does include insights into what it was like to serve in a support unit during the Vietnam War. It has value as presenting one slice of the U.S. Air Force’s role in the Vietnam War.