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

Bringing Boomer Home by Terence O’Leary

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Terence O’Leary writes acclaimed, realistic, coming-of-age novels that focus on teenagers facing family crises. The crisis in Bringing Boomer Home (Swan Creek Press, 238 pp., $11.99, paper; $7.99, Kindle) relates to the war in Iraq and to young men who leave small-town Friday night football behind to serve in that conflict.

Cody and Boomer are brothers who were stars on their high school football team. When Boomer graduates from high school, he chooses to join the military and go to Iraq to become a warrior.  He saves the lives of three buddies who were being burned alive. In the process of trying to save them, Boomer is horribly burned. His face and his hands need months of reconstructive surgery.

The Vietnam War is often referred to in this book, as Cody’s girlfriend is part Vietnamese and lives with her grandmother who is 100 percent Vietnamese and who lost part of an arm in the war in Vietnam. Boomer’s father encouraged him to join up, but his mother was against the idea.  This was a source of family conflict, especially after Boomer comes back to the United States hideously scarred.

Boomer spends many months in rehab and eventually returns to his community. Cody’s girlfriend Kim, a photographer, prepares the community for Boomer’s return by creating a photo essay. Kim’s grandfather was a Vietnam War photographer and there is much discussion of other Vietnam War photojournalists, including Larry Burrrows, Catherine Leroy, Eddie Adams, and Nick Ut.

The title gives a lot away. The final third of the book is devoted to what steps are taken to bring Boomer home to his community. These steps are risky and complicated, but they work out—after a fashion.

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Terence O’Leary

This is a Young Adult novel, and one expects that since it is aimed at young people, it will have a hopeful conclusion. Those are the kind of books that Terence O’Leary writes and this one is no exception. There is no real villain, except for perhaps the war.

The book ends with yet another football game. I’ll let you guess who wins: Cody’s team or the Panthers.

This is an excellent YA novel, and one that this not-young adult enjoyed reading.

The author’s website is www.terenceoleary.com

—David Willson

Forgotten by Marc Liebman

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Marc Liebman received his Navy commission in 1968, and became an aviator the following year. He retired as a Captain after serving for twenty-four years in the Navy. His military career took him all over the world, and included service in the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. During that time he also worked with the armed forces of Australia, Canada, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, and with the British Royal Navy.

His novel, Forgotten (Deeds, 594 pp., $25.57, paper), deals with six men who did not come home when the North Vietnamese returned the American POWs in 1973. The men had never been reported as POWs, but were listed as missing in action. The Vietnamese, in the person of NVA Lt. Col. Pham, use the Americans as laborers in a heroin factory. The colonel’s goal is to keep the men alive and ransom them for millions.

Back in the U.S., Janet, the wife of one of the POWs, is an strident antiwar activist. She fills her waiting time and sexual needs by becoming a highly paid assassin, taking on high-value targets around the world.

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Marc Liebman

Often this book read like a pop culture inventory. Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Sam Peckinpah, The Bridge over the River Kwai, Almond Joy, SDS, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rolex, Carlos Hathcock (the famed Vietnam War sniper) get more than a mention.

This is a giant whopper of a sex thriller with violence and bloodshed on most pages, along with that nymphomanical ex-antiwar activist turned assassin. If you love books like this, it’s the one is for you. It is predictable, however, as I was not surprised when Janet, the hit woman, was contracted to kill her own husband.

Forgotten is well written and held this reader’s attention throughout.

—David Willson

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

111111111111111111111111111“The detective Harry Bosch helps a small police department track a serial rapist, while as a P.I. he aids a billionaire in search of a possible heir.”

That’s how The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list describes the book that sits at number nine this week: Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Little, Brown, 394 pp., $29). That high-concept sentence is accurate, but doesn’t even begin to approach the detective-genre artistry Connelly once again exhibits in his nineteenth Harry Bosch cop procedural featuring the eponymous, not-quite-retired LAPD detective who served as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War.

As he has in all the Bosch books-–beginning with The Black Echo in 1992—Connelly spins out a page-turner with vivid characters, a twisting plot, and evocative depictions of Harry’s home turf: the greater Los Angeles area. This book also has a significant Vietnam War theme in that the search for the billionaire’s “possible heir” leads Harry to a young Navy corpsman who died in a helicopter crash in 1970 in Vietnam. Harry’s service in the war comes up in the course of his investigation and he has a flashback or two to his two memorable tours of duty.

The book, in fact, opens with a flashback of sorts, to a very convincing evocation of an extraction of a group of Marines from a hot LZ. It doesn’t end well. Connelly then moves right into his two-pronged story in which Harry, who is working a volunteer investigator job for the little City of San Fernando, also takes on a free-lance assignment directly from an ailing, aging billionaire.

Both stories take unexpected twists. Harry runs into situations and roadblocks that he seems to face in every book. He has to deal with a cranky police supervisor who is out to get him. He tends to bend the rules to get what he needs to bring a bad person to justice. He uses his brain power and decades of experience to figure out the identity of an arch-evil bad guy (the serial rapist). He displays physical courage. He suffers emotionally when good cops (and civilians) are harmed. And he won’t rest until he brings the culprits to justice.

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Michael Connelly

It all adds up to a greatly entertaining read that stands with the best of the Bosch’s—and the best Bosch’s are terrific books.

There are two minor missteps relating to the Vietnam War that I will mention only because they will not ring true to Marines or to any Vietnam War veteran who took an R&R. Connelly more than once refers to Marines as “soldiers,” and calls R&R “leave.”

Here’s hoping the publisher fixes those little errors for future printings. If that happens, this will be a perfect Harry Bosch.

—Marc Leepson

The Gun Room by Georgina Harding

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The British author Georgina Harding has published three acclaimed novels—The Solitude of Thomas Cave, The Spy Game, and Painter of Silence. Her latest, The Gun Room (Bloomsbury, 224 pp., $26), takes a proud place with the previous books. I find no evidence that Harding has any military background, but there is a lot of the Vietnam War in this novel, and no noticeable clunkers.

The main character is Jonathan, a young British photographer with a farming background who hitches a ride out to the war on a helicopter and blunders onto a My Lai-type massacre in a village. He takes a photograph of an American soldier sitting staring into space. This photo ends up on magazine covers as an iconic image of the Vietnam War.

The war follows Jonathan around for the rest of the story, even to Japan, where he goes to take more pictures and where he falls in love with a Japanese girl named Kimiko. She helps him come to terms with the war, but he then connects with the soldier he’d photographed in Vietnam.

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Georgina Harding

Jonathan flees back to the farm in England, and tries to put the war behind him. But the reader senses that he will always be scarred by his brief time in the Vietnam War—and by his choice to take the photographs he took.

No novel I have read better describes how powerful the memory of war can become entrenched in the mind of a young man. I loved the book and how free of the usual clichés it was. John Wayne’s name, for one thing, is never mentioned.

This is a fresh imagining of the American war in Vietnam, and it is much needed.

Thank you, Georgina Harding, for this fine book. Buy it and read it.

—David Willson

Shock Peace by CieCie Tuyet Nguyen

Ciecie Tuyet Nguyen was thirteen years old when she witnessed the events she bases her novel, Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom (Tate, 444 pp., $39.99, hardcover; $30.99, paper; $14.99, Kindle), on. Through the character of Trinh, she relives her memories of communist takeover of Saigon in 1975.

Why the author chose the title she did is a mystery to me. Reading the title, I figured that the novel would not be written in good English because the title makes little sense. But I was wrong; the novel is quite well written. There is the occasional jarring phrase such as “fresh as a cucumber” rather rather than “cool as a cucumber.”

A much better title would have been The Fall of Saigon through the Eyes of a Survivor.

Ciecie Nguyen continued to live in Saigon after April 1975 until her escape by boat to Australia with her family. Her mother arranged the escape and was the source of the family’s great strength through the horrors of the three years it took to get together the money and supplies necessary to leave Vietnam.

I’ve read many books about the so-called boat people and their brave attempts to get out of communist Vietnam, but none tells the story better than this novel. Nguyen reveals the barbarism of the North Vietnamese toward the South Vietnamese with an immediacy that hit home in a way that it never did before to me.

We get to know all the people involved in the escape, and we care about them and want them to get away from the horrors that have been brought down on them. They do make it and we learn about their lives after their escape.

Ciecie Tuyet Nguyen

Learning English is the biggest challenge for the Vietnamese once they learn the social customs of Australia. There is a funny section in which the refuges struggle to figure out why the Australians who live above them are so angry at them when they cook their dinner.

For some reason, the Australians hate the smell of the fish sauce and the garlic. They terrorize the Vietnamese by screaming at them and pounding on their door when they cook. Of course, the refugees have no idea what they are doing wrong. And there is nobody to tell them.

The author graduated from pharmacy school and now owns her own pharmacy in the western suburbs of Sydney. My respect for the authors’ academic and career successes is huge.

—David Willson