Syllables of Rain By D. S. Lliteras

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Syllables of Rain (Rainbow Ridge Books, 152 pp., $16.95, paper) is a poetic novel of pure genius by the novelist and poet D.S. Lliteras. A former Navy combat corpsman with the First Recon Marines in the Vietnam War, Lliteras received a Bronze Star for his courage under fire.

This work surpasses his earlier books that dealt with the Vietnam War: 613 West Jefferson, in which a returning Vietnam veteran tries to make sense of the terrible world he has returned to, and Viet Man, which shows what veterans dealt with while serving in Vietnam. Both are master works.  But neither book grapples with the things that Syllables of Rain takes on.

Syllables of Rain should be placed on the book shelf next to Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn as an antidote to giant books that seem to last as long as the war itself did.  Syllables of Rain lets the reader know what happened to Marines after the war, experiences weighed down by great sadness—as Matterhorn is burdened with blood, thunder, and death.

Llewellyn and Cookie, the friends at the heart of Syllables of Rain, are easily imagined in the world of Matterhorn and it is easy to imagine them buoyed up by Jansen, a larger-than-life Zen master who influences the rest of their lives. Llewellyn and Cookie had intersected years before, but their lives were ordained by fate to become intertwined yet again.  They stand, confronting each other on a street in Baltimore, face to face with their mortality and with assessing what their lives have measured up to.

Will they have a future with the women they love? Will they come to terms with their shared past and go on to deal successfully with their war and their emotions? They and we can only hope.  Some of us will even pray that they will. Llewellyn asks the question, “Is it wrong to be lost?”

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D.S. Lliteras

My favorite kind of Vietnam War book is short, poetical, and filled with hard-fought truths.  Every page would be purest poetry, quarried from the marble of experience. This is that book. D. S. Lliteras brings his unique genius to bear on the world of the Vietnam War veteran, sometimes homeless, often heartsick from love lost.

Viet Man is a gritty in-country novel; Syllables of Rain is the poetic novel of a lifetime of coping with war, of struggling “to make peace with Vietnam” with the war that “separated us from everybody else.”

I’d thought that D. S. Lliteras’ previous book, Viet Man, was un-toppable, but I was dead wrong.

—David Willson

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Between the Walls of Time by Michael Stafford

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Michael Stafford did a lot of research about war before writing his novel, Between the Walls of Time (Grey Swan Press, 485 pp., $36.95). When his main character Cyrus Kohler thinks about war, he “knew that war damaged souls, left them with unhealed wounds. The pain came unexpectedly, and on many levels, and often brought along its companion, hopelessness.”

This rang true to me. Certainly I experience it that way, thanks to having to deal with multiple myeloma, which is related to my exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.

The first section of this book focuses on the main character’s time in that war.  Lt. Kohler, an Army Ranger, participates in the Americans’ last big land battle of the Vietnam War, the 1970 fight at Firebase Ripcord, serving with the 101st Airborne, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, the Currahees. In that fight, four battalions of American troops confronted an entire division of North Vietnamese Army troops.

In the novel, due to incompetent leadership, Lt. Kohler and his men are abandoned, but Cyrus survives. In the thirty years after he returns home, Kohler gets his PhD and becomes a university professor, something few returning Vietnam War veterans have done.

We are told that during this thirty years,Cyrus witnessed “the decline of America” and he “is compelled to form a third political party, which he names “the Front.’” That is what the rest of the book is about. Stafford manages to get a reference to Jane Fonda into the narrative, although he devotes far more space to her one-time husband and fellow antiwar activist Tom Hayden.

The prose is sometimes demanding. For example: “The sky grimaced, the palette of its wet, gray, monsoon overwhelmed by so many ascending souls.”

As I read that passage near the book’s beginning, I asked myself, “Can I stand reading almost 450 more pages with sentences like that? It’s going to be a long hard slog for me.”  Thankfully, the book lightened up after that—at least the prose did.

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Michael Stafford

My favorite parts involve the action pieces. There’s a character, a bald eagle named Myoconda, who kills one of the primary bad guys by descending from the sky and dispatching him with his talons and his beak. Good riddance to him.

The bad guy in question had just murdered one of my favorite characters in the book, an ancient Shawnee woman named Tante Colleen, a reputed voodoo sorceress. Her great grandmother had walked The Trail of Tears.

The book was enjoyable and I recommend it to those who like reading about folks who are trying to save America by forming new political parties.

The author’s website is johnmichaelstafford.com

—David Willson

Some Never Forget by R. Cyril West

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Some Never Forget (Molan Labe, 302 pp., $12.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) is the second book in R. Cyril West’s POW/MIA Truth series. His first was The Thin Wall.

Some Never Forget is an intriguing mix of conspiracy theory related to the betrayal of POWs being left behind in Southeast Asia by their government, along with American Indian Tlingit mythology. The latter is an attempt to reap the sort of magic that Tony Hillerman made his own and nobody else has been able to hold a candle to.

West believes there are baskets full of dirty government secrets. It’s hard to argue with that. He begins the story begins in Sitka, Alaska, in 1980, nine years after Walter Greene’s son went missing in the Vietnam War. Greene is tormented about the unknown fate that befell his boy—especially after the Department of Defense suddenly changes his son’s status from MIA to KIA.

Greene sees this clerical change as redolent of meaning. After he gets a warning from a government functionary and weird things start happening on his homestead, Greene is galvanized into action.

He believes it is a lie that all the POWs came home. He wants to get to the bottom of things. We are assured that the end of the novel will make us gasp. It sort of does.

The first page of this paranoia thriller gives us the phrases “Korea Veteran,” “Don’t Tread on Me,” and “Fuck Hanoi Jane.” When I read the third, which is lettered on Greene’s leather jacket, I thought I knew all I needed to know about his mindset. I was pretty much right.

I guess I am in the “anti-American” crowd that Greene wishes to steer clear of.  I hope I am wrong.

The author’s web site is http://www.rcyrilwest.com/some-never-forget

—David Willson

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille

Nelson DeMille is a veteran of the Vietnam War, having served as an Army infantry platoon leader with 1st Cavalry Division. He also is the author of twenty novels, most of which are action thrillers, and most of which have been big bestsellers.  He was named 2015 ThrillerMaster of the Year by the International Thriller Writers organization.

DeMille’s latest, The Cuban Affair (Simon & Schuster, 464 pp., $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), more than lives up to those that preceded it. DeMille’s new hero is Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, a U. S. Army veteran who is using his hard-won military skills to run a fishing boat out of Key West. Mac spent five years as an Army infantry officer. He fought in Afghanistan, and was awarded a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. That service also came with a variety of eye-catching scars, and it left him with a weakness for adventure.

A beautiful young Cuban-American woman offers Mac a deal in which he can help her retrieve $60 million in cash and gold left behind in Castro’s Cuba for a small cut. This isn’t the first novel of this sort I’ve read, so I suspected that things might go wrong. How could it not when the co-conspirators have a map showing where the gold is hidden?

Spoiler alert: Things do go a bit wrong. And even though a jaundiced Vietnam War veteran is part of Mac’s team, some unanticipated bad things happen. John Wayne gets a mention—not in a good way—and well-worn expressions from the Vietnam War such as “Di Di Mau” pop up.

Nelson DeMille

The murder of seventeen American Vietnam War POWs who had been held captive in the Hanoi Hilton also figures in the plot. They ended up in Cuba only to be tortured and shot by the Castro regime in those bad old days. Their skulls were kept in a trunk, which Mac is responsible for returning to America.

I recommend this novel to all those who have been fans of DeMille’s thrillers for as many years as I have. Also to those who have somehow not intersected with this master thriller writer.

You have hours of purely pleasurable reading ahead of you.

—David Willson

 

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 in Rockhampton, Australia, and lives in Tasmania. I wouldn’t be surprised if her father served during the Vietnam War. Certainly the way she characterizes the people in her novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult, 176 pp., $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), indicates she knows about Vietnam War veterans. Or she is a damned good researcher. Either way, her characters ring true.

I was relieved to read that the characters in the book are fictitious as I would hate to blunder into any of them in real life. Or in my dreams, for that matter.  Especially Uncle Les “who seems to move through their lives like a ghost, earning trust and suspicion.”

The backbone of A Loving, Faithful Animal (the only book I’ve read that presents the Australian ruins of the Vietnam War) is the fact that Ru’s father, an Australian conscript during the Vietnam War, has turned up missing, this time with an air of finality. This makes Ru think “he’s gone for good.” Or for evil.

One blurb writer says the book’s “astonishing poetic prose left me aching and inspired.”  I got half of that—unfortunately, the aching part.

I don’t know if the greeting, “Have a few bottles of Tiger Piss and get defoliated,” was invented for this book, or if it is a common one in Australia’s legacy of their involvement in the Vietnam War. I hope it is just particular to this novel.

A character cuts off both trigger fingers to avoid being drafted. That seems extreme to me. But the book reminds me that a prevalent attitude during the war was that if you were drafted you would be sent to Vietnam and if you were sent there, you would die there. I never understood that, but I did encounter it.

John Wayne does get a mention, so do Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, LBJ, and Ho Chi Minh. One of the comments a character makes about being the offspring of a Vietnam veteran is that she’s spent her life “trying to lead [her] father out of the jungle.”

The question gets asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?”  The answer is that Ho Chi Minh kicked over LBJ’s trike. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any.

Josephine Rowe

Early in the novel we are told that all chemical agents used in Vietnam “have been fully exonerated from causing veterans’ subsequent ill health, with the partial exception of the antimalarial drug Dapsone, whose status has not been resolved.”

That makes me feel better about the Multiple Myeloma that is killing me by degrees. The question about how many Vietnam vets it takes to screw in a light bulb gets asked. No answer is given.

If you feel the need to read a book about the impact of the Vietnam War on the people of Australia, start with this one.

You could do worse. I did.

—David Willson

A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington

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Laura Harrington has written dozens of plays, musicals, and operas, as well as Alice Bliss, a novel that deals with the Iraq War. Her new book, A Catalog of Birds (Europa Editions, 224 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is set in 1970 when Billy Flynn returns home from his tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot who had been shot down and very badly burned.

The only survivor of that helicopter crash, Billy returns to his family in upstate New York where his adoring kid sister tries valiantly to help him regain the use of his right hand and arm. Billy had been a brilliant artist, drawing birds with a pencil he can’t even hold with his crippled right hand.

This is one of those tragedy-of-war books that has tears on every page and no easy answers or miracles for Billy Flynn or his sister. There is also a mystery: Billy’s pre-war girlfriend disappears and is never heard from again.

The VA hospital where Billy receives inadequate care is rat-infested and his care givers are skeptical that anything serious is wrong with him. They all but accuse him of faking his injury. Plus, the VA only pays for half of Billy’s rehab; his parents go bankrupt trying to pay for the other half.

What’s more, Billy and his best friend Harlow are treated by people outside the VA as though they are baby killers and monsters. They spend a lot of time drinking away their time and pain.

There is a big discussion about chemicals that the Army used in Vietnam. “There are plenty of vets who can’t smell or taste.” Billy says to his father. “Most everybody has hearing loss. More and more cancers are showing up. The VA says they are slacking off, looking to stay on the dole. Twelve million tons of Agent Orange, Dad. As if the Geneva Convention against chemical warfare did not exist. Think of what we have done, what we are leaving behind.”

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Laura Harrington

This is as bleak a novel about the Vietnam War as I’ve read. Nothing turns out well for anyone. No good comes out of the war either. Harrington—who teaches play writing at MIT—and I see eye to eye about that.

Those who see the war as having done a lot of good should go elsewhere for their reading.

The author’s website is lauraharringtonbooks.com

—David Willson

Before We Sleep By Jeffrey Lent

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Jeffrey Lent has written a lot of serious literary novels, including In the Fall (2000) and A Slant of Light (2015), both of which deal with war and relationships. That’s also true with his new novel, Before We Sleep (Bloomsbury, 385 pp., $28).

In it, seventeen-year-old Katey Snow leaves her parents’ home in Vermont in the dead of night, carrying a packet of letters from an old World War II Army buddy of her fathers, which she hopes will provide information about who she is and where she came from. She’s recently been told that Oliver Snow, whom she has thought was her father, is not her biological parent, and she’s now driven to find answers.

This large novel deals mostly with the Greatest Generation as the 60s brings the trauma of a new war down upon them. The novel is heavy going. I found the prose excessively poetical and sluggish—and not just because of Lent’s lack of finesse with commas. I grant that other readers might well bask in his prose ponds, which seemed to me to be a Saragossa Sea of verbiage.

When Katey leaves, sneaking off without any formal farewell, I thought it likely that terrible things would happen to a girl who had never been away from home. I was not wrong. Terrible things do happen, but Katey bounces back from them much faster than I thought was likely or possible, given what Lent lets us know about her character.

The novel goes back and forth between Katey’s adventures on the road and her mother Ruth’s point of view and memories. We learn a lot about Oliver and Ruth, and about their marriage at the beginning of  World War II. Lent expends much prose (and energy) giving the reader a picture of Vermont, and showing us how the state changes through the seasons and through the years.

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Jeffrey Lent

This novel is more about mothers and daughters than it is about men and war. But there is enough to justify calling it a Vietnam War novel—in the larger sense. There’s even a rant about what napalm will be used for after the war “once this shit runs out of steam.”

Will the sender of the letters Katey is seeking answers from have the answers Katey needs or wants?  That is the central mystery of this novel, and I won’t answer it here. Read the book and discover for yourself.

You’ll either love this weighty novel and its special poetical language, or you will not. Good luck with it.

—David Willson