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

 

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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

The Militarized Zone: What Did You Do in the Army, Grandpa? by Wayne E. Johnson

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Wayne E. Johnson was drafted in 1969 and spent two years serving in the U.S. Army. He is currently working on a prequel to his novel The Militarized Zone; What Did You Do in the Army, Grandpa? (Tradewinds, 302 pp. $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), which was published in November of 2016.

Will Jensen is the protagonist of this heavily biographical novel, which takes place mostly in Korea. Will is drafted and sent to serve his Army time in Seoul with 8th Army Headquarters in the MOS 71 H-30, personnel management specialist.  It took the author over forty years to figure out how to make a book out of notes he took during his Army service.

Johnson tells us that this is a work of fiction and that the characters are composites of real people he served with. He sprinkles some Korean words and phrases into the narrative, but explains most of them; others are easy to figure out.

Johnson tells us to look at the book “as you would M*A*S*H* and Good Morning, Vietnam.” All three, he says, “are based on real events, real people, somewhat embellished for entertainment value and continuity.”

I enjoyed The Militarized Zone and learned that serving in Korea during the Vietnam War was amazingly similar to serving in Vietnam at that same time. It was safer in Korea than in Vietnam, though. Bob Hope and Racquel Welch entertained the troops there, just as they did in Vietnam, so a Korean tour of duty had that going for it, too.

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Wayne E. Johnson

Johnson has written an honest and entertaining book about a subject that has not drawn a lot of attention: What were we up to in Korea during the Vietnam War? This interesting book answers that question and does so with humor and clarity. Jane Fonda gets a mention early on, but Bob Hope and Racquel Welch help balance that out.

—David Willson

The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

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Matthew Quick is best known for his big-selling 2008 novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, and the even bigger Hollywood movie it spawned in 2012. The book and film received generally positive reviews. More than one critic, however, has pointed out that the plot—about a young man overcoming mental illness—strains credibility (to the breaking point) and the characters bear little resemblance to real human beings.

In his new novel, The Reason You’re Alive (Harper, 240 pp., $25.99, Quick again deals with a main character with serious mental problems. The reason you’re reading this review on this web page is that the character is a Vietnam War veteran.  Said veteran is “an opinionated and good-hearted American patriot fighting like hell to stay true to his red, white and blue heart,” Quick’s publisher says, “even as the country he loves rapidly changes in ways he doesn’t always like or understand.”

There’s little doubt the guy (who narrates the story) is opinionated and patriotic. But good-hearted? I couldn’t get that word out of my mind as I read page after page after page of the veteran spouting anything but “good-hearted” words. For example, throughout the book he refers to Vietnamese as “gooks” and “little yellow” people. Doctors are “fucking moron[s] and nurses are “cold bitch[es].”

I guess some of this crude, offensive spouting off can be classified as “opinionated.” And I am sure there are people who agree with some or all of this. But why center a novel on a character who is a mean-spirted, bigoted, misogynist, racist boor?

Some reviewers (and the publisher) talk about the humor in the book. Perhaps some of this Archie-Bunker stuff tickles some people’s funny bones. But I didn’t find anything close to humor on one page of the novel.

Another distressing aspect of the book is Quick’s ultra-clichéd depiction of his central character. The guy is little more than a one-dimensional stereotype: a mentally unbalanced, cammie-wearing, gun-loving Nam vet haunted by the dozens of men, women, and children he offed in the war. How do we know this? Quick has the guy conveniently tell us that he and his buddies “did things you can’t even imagine” in Vietnam, killing maybe “hundreds of gooks,” many of them civilians, and “burning so many villages.”

Then there are the credibility-stretching plot details, including the fact that the narrator somehow amassed a fortune in the world of finance after the war and his best friend in a multi-billionaire. And that in Vietnam the guy is ordered to “break” a fellow grunt, an American Indian, who scalped dead enemy soldiers and kept them on his belt. He “breaks” the guy by humiliating him in front of the platoon, forcing him to crawl all but naked on the ground and pick up cigarette butts with his teeth.

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Mathew Quick

Spoiler alert: The book’s penultimate extended scene is another piece of preposterousness: a meeting arranged by the vet’s billionaire friend with the guy he “broke” at the latter’s mansion in Vegas. All goes swimmingly well—including what’s meant to be a shocking disclosure but is lamely predictable.

Before reading this book, I had thought that the tired, stereotypical image of the Vietnam veteran as a one-time merciless killing machine turned mentally damaged and violently dangerous was a thing of the past. Sad to say, its alive (and not well) in this book.

—Marc Leepson

The Discharge by Gary Reilly

Gary Reilly died in 2011. He left behind a treasure trove of unpublished novels. Among those is a trilogy which relates to his military service. Reilly’s protagonist in that trilogy is named Pvt. Palmer. In the first novel, Palmer is drafted and trained to be a military policeman.  In the second, The Detachment, Palmer serves his year in Southeast Asia.

In the recently published The Discharge (Running Meter Press, $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) Pvt. Palmer is “back in the world,” and like most of us who served in uniform in Vietnam, he confronts a new America, one that is very different from the one he left behind a year earlier. Reilly accurately portrays the confusion of Palmer as he struggles to find his direction home.

The strategies that served him well in Vietnam don’t help much in Denver, San Francisco, or Los Angeles where he goes to pursue a movie career. Palmer’s “California dreamin’” comes to naught and soon enough he’s back in Denver behind the wheel of a cab.

Our hero had some fun adventures in California—Strother Martin, Gunsmoke, and the La Brea Tar Pits come into play. It’s a near thing that Palmer doesn’t end up in the pits along with the saber-toothed tigers and the ancient giant tree sloths. He also played phone tag with Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, John Steinbeck, and Woody Allen.

Palmer’s return to America also involves his fear about his role in baby killing. He tries to play an early Animals album that has “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” on it at a party, but is told that it  was not “the right sound for now.” No sounds Palmer comes up with are, as he tries very hard to become a part of things, but all his efforts fail miserably.

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Gary Reilly

No book I’ve read better captures the anomie that poor, befuddled Palmer struggles with. Behind the wheel of a taxi, Palmer finds his place in America—permanently on the move, always changing his destination—a destination chosen by others.

The Discharge prepares us for The Asphalt Warrior series—eight books so far—all of them comedy classics.  Read them after you read this one, if you haven’t already.

The publisher’s website is theasphaltwarrior.com

—David Willson