Lost in Dalat by James Luger

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Vietnam War veteran James Luger’s new novel, Lost in Dalat: The Courage of a Family Torn by War (High Flight, 298 pp. $12.95; paper; $5.95, Kindle), introduces the reader to Meggon Mondae (love that name), whose father went missing in action in Vietnam just before she was born.

The story begins as Meggon’s seven-year marriage ends and she finds herself thinking of her father whose body was never recovered after one of the last big battles of the war in early 1972. Having a father she never knew listed as an MIA in the war left “a hole” in her heart.

The first few pages make pretty uncomfortable reading as we witness a marriage spat that nearly turns into a declaration of domestic war. Finding herself in the throes of a messy divorce—and with additional problems at work—Meggon begins thinking more and more of her father. She enlists the help of a veteran who places a notice in the locator section of a veterans magazine asking if anyone remembers serving with her father.

After a few weeks, she hears from a man who tells her that he saw “where he fell.” The veteran says it was in the Central Highlands, just west of the mountain city of Dalat. He says he last saw her father trying to help an injured buddy before they disappeared after a grenade explosion.

With this information, Meggon ponders going to Vietnam to visit the general location where her father fell. She hopes this will help her connect with him more. Meggon’s first inkling of going to Vietnam doesn’t come until nearly half-way through the book

Traveling alone, she arrives in Ho Chi Minh City and quickly learns that most Vietnamese people still call it Saigon. She also discovers that what she had always known as the Vietnam War is actually is called the American War in Vietnam by the Vietnamese. A highlight of this book is Luger’s depiction of food and drink and details of Vietnamese life today.

Once she gets to Dalat, Meggon deals with people who cheat her, only to be victimized by a shakedown at the hands of a local government official—not once, but twice. She’s informed that the corruption is “a system we are used to.” Wanting to immediately return home, Meggon ends up being befriended by someone who takes her to a small mountain known locally as “Massacre Mountain” because of the number of American soldiers who died on it one night.

She’s told: “You are standing on the same ground your father walked on.”

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Jim Luger

At that point the story begins to go off the rails, though anything can happen in a fictional world. Our heroine becomes romantically entangled with a local businessman, sets off an international incident, and—with bullets flying—desperately tries to escape the country.

She tells one character, “If you want to fight until we’re both destroyed, then let’s go.”

The story is well-told and the book is well written, yet it remains an “entertainment” and does nothing to advance the story of our nation’s Vietnam War experience.

Jim Luger is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America. His website is jamesluger.com

–Bill McCloud

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Preston by Philip McKinney

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Philip McKinney served in the U.S. Air Force, including a tour of duty in 1967-68 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam. His novel, Preston (168 pp., $20, paper; $7.19, Kindle), is set in the 1970s in the titular fictional Michigan town.

The main problem with the book for me was that it had no page numbers. Also, I learned far more about the town of Preston than I wanted or needed to know. It’s a small town with some fabulous scenery in the northwestern section of Lower Michigan. The most recent thing that happened there that was of interest to me took place 11,000 years ago when the last glaciers withdrew from the area.

One of the narrators of  this novel loved his job working for a newspaper in Traverse City about forty miles away from Preston. Then he moved to Preston. He was a little ahead of the so-called Boomers and when he attended Michigan State in East Lansing, and so neither the draft nor the Vietnam War had become controversial.  By the time the war and the draft became an issue, he had finished his degree, gotten married, and had a child.

The war does not loom large in this book. Another narrator —an Air Force Vietnam War veteran—only briefly refers to war in a few conversations. That makes the novel essentially a biography of the town of Preston. It is easy to read and moves right along. I’ve never read another book like it, and I’m not sure I feel a need to do so.

I recommend this book highly to those who wish to read a book that is unlike any other you most likely ever have read.

The book’s lack of page numbers annoyed at first, but then I got used to it.

–David Willson

Jungle Warriors, Crime Fighters by Doug Houser

Doug Houser completed Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in 1966, and landed in the Vietnam War in January 1967. He served a thirteen-month tour of duty along the DMZ in—among other places—the Rock Pile, Khe Sanh, the Hai Lang Forrest, and the Artillery Plateau.

The protagonist of his novel, Jungle Warriors, Crime Fighters (BookBaby, 308 pp., $18.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle) KC Huntington, runs a post-war security company made up of other former Marines. It’s a success and he has a comfortable life, but KC needs more. So he decides to form a secret Special Operations division of his company. The special ops guys then go after criminals who have slipped through the hands of the law.

Using lessons he learned during stealthy maneuvers in the dark in Vietnam, KC and his crew get involved in more and more dangerous situations. KC hires a woman to train his men in sophisticated martial arts. She trains the crew and they kick a lot of butt.

The primary revelation for me in this novel came about a third of the way through.  “One of the things most Americans don’t know is that Vietnamese couldn’t see very well in the dark,” Houser writes. “The notion that they had superior night-vision was a misconception that was reinforced by the fact that the North Vietnamese Army almost always maneuvered under the cover of darkness, thus the saying, ‘They control the night.’”

Why couldn’t the enemy see well after dark? Houser tells us that it had to do with diet.  The Vietnamese ate mostly rice with some fish and therefore lacked the nutrients required to produce the chemicals for a human to develop good night vision, he says.

Which leaves an unanswered question: Given the fact that the enemy “couldn’t see very well in the dark,” how could we lose such an unequal war?

If you are desperate to read a thriller that builds on skills learned in the Vietnam War, Jungle Warriors Crime Fighters might be just the ticket.

On the other hand, if you like reading novels that are reality based, this is probably not the book for you.

The book’s website is junglewarriorscrimefighters.com

—David Willson

Abby and the Old Guy by Robert

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Robert Quinn’s Abby and the Old Guy (Independently Published, 500 pp. $14.99, paper)is a massive male-fantasy romance novel. The time period is November of 2007 to February of 2009.

Quinn is a lawyer and financial services professional who served in the Air Force in Vietnam from 1969-70 and is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America. His main character, Matt Flynn, is also a Vietnam veteran and a “part-time attorney and part-time financial guy.”

Flynn—a great name for a hero, by the way—meets Abigail McKay in a New England coffee shop on the first page. If this were a movie, at this point we wouldn’t be through the opening credits. The 61-year-old Flynn, widowed for ten years, and the 26-year-old grad student immediately fall in love.

We follow the lovers through a dialogue-driven novel that also includes lots of descriptions, mainly of meals, clothes—and of the two main characters undressing each other.

It’s a work of male fantasy because Abby loves the body of a man who has thirty-five years on her, and because she invites him into her apartment on their second day together. Whereupon they have glorious sex.

It’s a work of male fantasy because Abby, whom Flynn he calls “Beauty,” is constantly saying things any older man would love to hear. That includes that she finds him more interesting than guys her age.

It’s also male fantasy because Flynn, whom Abby lovingly calls “Old Guy,” is an extremely virile man. They make love their first eight, at least, days together. And they don’t stop there. After the first month they calculate—yes, they keep track—that they’ve made love 130 times. After eight months the number reaches almost a thousand, which works out to an average of “four times a day.”

The novel covers fifteen months in which Flynn and Abby meet, fall in love, move in together, get engaged, get married, and have a child. They also make love 1,481 times. That’s mathematically possible because when her pregnancy causes abdominal cramps she believes she will feel better if they have sex, which they do nearly up to the day she delivers. The book ends with the suggestion that their new baby is not going to slow them down any.

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Bob Quinn

Flynn’s Vietnam War experience plays a small part in the story, primarily in a short section when we learn that Abby’s family respects him for his military service.

Bob Quinn is a hell of a writer and this giant novel is immensely readable. But not all that much happens and Flynn’s one-way “conversations” with his deceased wife early on in the book were a little off-putting.

I guess if you buy the book’s main premise, you’ll by okay with what transpires. If you don’t buy it—and I didn’t—then not much of the novel will work for you.

—Bill McCloud

Big Bang by David Bowman

 

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David Bowman’s Big Bang (Little Brown, 624 pp., $32, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle) is a posthumously published historical novel by an acclaimed author who died in 2012 at the age of fifty-four.

This giant book is as intense and as dense as a documentary as Bowman follows the lives and happenstances of nearly all of the newsworthy people who lived from 1950-63, the period of time the novel covers. Bowman’s close friend, the novelist Jonathan Lethem, tries his best in a lengthy introduction to prepare the reader for what will come in the book.

I have not read Bowman’s previous novels: Let the Dog Drive, Bunny Modern, or This Must Be the Place, so I was unprepared for his writing style and narrative methods. It says on the front of the book that it is a novel. But it is not a novel in the tradition of a Louis L’Amour western, say; it’s much more akin to Laurence Sterne’s classic 18th century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

If you flip through the pages of Big Bang, you’ll notice that the characters have familiar names such as Ngo Dinh Diem, Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Dr. Spock, Jimi Hendrix, J.D. Salinger, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Norman Mailer, and dozens of other real-life headliners

The chapter headings fit with the names. It’s not until Book II that this reviewer, looking for references to the Vietnam War, found “The American Embassy, Saigon, South Viet-Nam, 1963.”  Many much earlier chapter headings, such as “Cody, Montana, 1955-1956,” also interested me.

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Bowman

It’s hard not to think of this book as a massive writing achievement, especially upon learning of the head injury that Bowman suffered as a young man, and the cerebral hemorrhage that caused his early death.

I am tempted to find one of his earlier books and take a shot at reading it to see if that might help me get a better understanding of Big Bang—which was a challenge.

Meanwhile, I ruminate about the book and find myself thinking of it more as a series of small bangs or whimpers than I do as one Big Bang. There are hundreds of small bangs, in other words, but they never seem to add up to the huge noise that the title words lead us to expect.

—David Willson

Hope in the Shadows of War by Thomas Paul Reilly

Thomas Paul Reilly is an award-winning columnist and the author of many books. He often advocates for causes important to military veterans.

His latest novel, Hope in the Shadows of War (Koehler Books, 278 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), has a few short scenes that take place in Vietnam during the war, but primarily the book deals with the life of Vietnam War veteran Timothy Patrick O’Rourke who is struggling in 1973 America to find his way after a tough tour of combat duty.

He has a seriously damaged leg that has left him with a pronounced limp. This leaves Timothy open to be called “gimp” and “Chester” after the limping Gunsmoke character.

Much of the book takes place prior to Christmas. Timothy works at a Christmas tree stand where he struggles to do the heavy lifting. He does his part, but little slack is cut for him. Some attempt is made to make Timothy an “everyveteran” struggling with “alienation, hyper-vigilance, substance abuse, relationship problems, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, and depression.”

Timothy is not a whiner, but is reluctant to share his troubles with his girlfriend Cheryl, who wants him to do so. Manliness issues prevent Timothy from coming clean with her about his money problems and other related issues.

People at the VA seem often to drag their feet about helping veterans, and people in general seem to not want to hire anyone who served in the Vietnam War. Timothy gets put on notice at the hospital where he works part time for seeming to be interested in talking with union organizers, which adds to the stress he has to deal with on a daily basis.

Little is made of Timothy’s military experience as a helicopter pilot, but much is made of his return to civilian life being marred by indifference or hostility on the part of former friends. Timothy supports his mother with a hodgepodge of part-time jobs, and fights to pursue his dream of getting a college degree.

Timothy does have a lot of support from friends and from his incredibly loyal girlfriend, and some luck which comes his way. I was glad that all his luck was not bad, because I was rooting for him as most readers will find themselves doing.

I recommend this novel highly.

The author’s website is tomreillyblog.com

—David Willson

Ride a Twisted Mind Home by J. Dixon Neuman

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The pseudonymous J. Dixon Neuman is a  U.S. Navy veteran who was born and raised in the Allegany Mountains and served in the Vietnam War with Swift Boats and a Navy Support Activity.  The events his novel, Ride a Twisted Mind Home (Xlibris, 414 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $23.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), he tells us, are ripped from the pages of his life.

The main character, Jake Brewer, is modeled on the author. He is of Christian faith, which helped him to survive two brutal tours of duty in the Vietnam War. Early in the story, his marriage is rocky, but gradually gathers strength. Jake battles with PTSD and recovers enough to complete his military career.

The other primary protagonist is a member of the Slater Family, a group of primarily career criminals who learn stern lessons about life in prison. The Slaters are  “a family of vengeful troublemakers. These longtime residents of Sterling County are headed to war.” And that is where they end up. Prison, we find out, is not be the best preparation for military service.

The writing tends to be a bit overemotional. Early in the novel—actually, in the second sentence—Newman writes: “Gravity sucks them into a black hole of disastrous consequences.” That is hard to imagine. But we don’t have to imagine it, as the next few pages describe said black hole in great detail.

There are no Vietnam War battle scenes in the book. The war is mentioned, but only occasionally.  For example: there is “a warped half-crazed Vietnam vet with a chip on his shoulder,” and Dustoff pilots are referred to in passing.  This novel does include many mentions of “assault, rapes, arson, stalking and ongoing destruction,” but only in a peacetime environment. PTSD and trips to the VA are also mentioned in passing.

Many disgusting references are in this novel, enough for it to be characterized as more than occasionally disgusting in tone. I warn readers that this novel is not for the faint of heart—or the easily revolted.

I found myself resenting having to read this book for review. Rarely do I feel that strongly negative about a review novel—almost never, in fact.

The excessively vernacular writing in this book also made it a struggle to read. I would not describe myself as faint of heart, but perhaps in my old age I am becoming more easily offended when confronted with descriptions of individuals whose bodies and clothes stink or are rotting off their bodies.

When I worked decades ago as a welfare worker, I encountered such people from time to time and was able to deal with them with compassion, but this novel’s characters tested my patience—and my compassion.

—David Willson