Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by André Lewis Carter

In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (336 pp. Kaylie Jones Books/Akashic, $42.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), U.S. Navy veteran André Lewis Carter takes a fictional look at the early 1970s, a time of heightened racial tension in the Navy. This excellent first novel, while chronicling the racism faced by main character Cesar Alvarez, in the end is love letter to the U.S. Navy.

Alvarez, a teenaged, street tough of Afro-Cuban descent, enlists in the Navy to run away from his past, including a murderous gangster who is hot on his heels. As he goes through the recruiting process Cesar’s not sure what he thinks of his recruiter in “full Cracker Jack uniform,” who reminds him of an ice cream salesman.

Cesar is sent to the Great Lakes boot camp where manners “were an early casualty as the men drew closer. It was kind of like being in grade school.” He finds himself attending classes “where attentive students dodged the textbooks” thrown at nodding-off recruits. There is also the usual verbal abuse and multiple workouts “akin to personal assault.” Some recruits drop out because of injuries, while some just seem to disappear.  

Meanwhile, the gangster, Mr. Mike, also joins the Navy to avoid serious legal issues, a seemingly ominous event.

After boot camp, Cesar is assigned to Signalman School in San Diego. One of the first things he’s told, from a Black seaman, is: “It’s just so sad to see another brother walk into this shit. Ain’t nothin’ good gon’ come from you putting on that uniform. I’m telling you, man, you can’t be Black and Navy too.”

In Signalman School the trainees are told that their future captains “would make decisions based on information passed from their signalmen, so it better be right the first time.” On base he learns of a “white boy club,” and notes how racial bias “seemed blatant.” He’s soon facing overt racism during a time when the Navy was “cracking down on drug use, across the board.”

André Carter

Cesar learns he’s going to be assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, supporting U.S. troops in Vietnam. It’s sometimes known as the “Shitty Kitty” because the ship is always “having some kind of malfunction.” What Cesar doesn’t know is that he’s heading straight into an encounter with Mr. Mike, which will unfold during the worst shipboard racial riot in U.S. naval history.

The dialogue in this first novel is so natural that it speeds the story along. The main character, not a sympathetic one at first, grows on the reader. And we get a quite satisfying ending.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is not a war story; it’s a war-time story. And a great one.

Carter’s website is andrelewiscarter.com

–Bill McCloud

The Sentinel Papers by Robert Espenscheid, Jr.

Robert Espenscheid, Jr. most definitely owns a creative mind. Fortunately for readers, he shares his thoughts. His fourth novel, The Sentinel Papers (273 pp. $12, paper), bores in on American life in the early 1980s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Espenscheid tells his story in a journal format. The cast of characters features three unmarried Vietnam War veterans who call themselves “The Deck”; two daughters of one of the veterans; members of the Sedgewick family; and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

The story revolves around the interactions of the veterans and the Sedgewicks, particularly the relationship between Oliver Dragon and Jodi Sedgewick. Yes, the book is a love story, and at every opportunity sex grabs center stage and does so in humorous ways. The drama is filled with complexity and contradictory behavior that carries beyond ordinary life. Nevertheless, the characters are truly believable.                     

This dialogue-heavy, fast-paced novel, which is set in Milwaukee, illuminates the difficulties of living with the consequences of war and highlights people’s dependence on lasting friendships and family life. Espenscheid tells stories that contain messages of right-or-wrong and good-or-bad, but he does not preach. At one point, he summarizes Oliver’s feelings by having him say, “Life had caught all of us by surprise.”  

Espenscheid can turn a phrase. He describes one man, for example, as a “guy with a smile that lit up whenever he swung a kick stand down.” A man with “baggage crammed with heartache” is so psychologically lost that he says, “Not even Santa Clause knew my address.”

Espenscheid served as an artillery officer in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. He fictionalizes several of his war experiences in flashbacks in the novel. What the novel tells of the war is unique, presenting situations that I have encountered nowhere else.

After The Deck and the Sedgewick sisters pair off, the book concentrates on their efforts to build a unified family and to rejuvenate financially strapped Harley-Davidson. In doing so, Espenscheid provides outlandish lessons about group interactions, working class management, and love.

The Sentinel Papers ends with a bang that feel like peoples’ reactions to VJ-Day, Christmas, and the Fourth of July rolled into one. The Deck and wives, relatives, and Harley-Davidson triumph.

Espenscheid lets it all hang out and the results are stupendous. I’m still grinning.

—Henry Zeybel

Shadebringer: Book One by Grayson W. Hooper

Grayson Hooper’s Shadebringer: Book One: The Land of Irgendwo (River Grove Books, 300 pp. $15.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), is a work of high fantasy with a strong Vietnam War theme. Hooper is an active-duty Army Major and a physician.

In this, Hooper’s first novel, main character Clyde Robbins is killed during the war, then wakes up in another world. If you can buy that premise—as I had no trouble doing—then you will most likely enjoy this story.

Robbins was a baby-faced teenager in Philadelphia when he enlisted in the Army and, after attending NCO school “in hot-as-balls Georgia,” he rose up the ranks quickly, eventually becoming an E-6 Staff Sergeant. In February 1969, less than two weeks after he arrives in-country, Robbins gets his first kill.  

After six months of fighting, Robbins thinks, “War did not make sense to me. So why am I here? Why do I thrive? Is my sole purpose to engender pain and chaos? Can I bring nothing else to those around me besides suffering?” In response, he hears a disembodied woman’s voice say, “We will give you purpose, Clyde.”

Robbins wakes up as if from sleeping not knowing where he is. Before long, he’s running from danger, possibly monsters, and wondering if he is dreaming. Being told that he’s in a totally different reality, “in a different world now,” he has flashes of memory involving a hunt for a downed pilot and running into a ferocious, deadly ambush.

After making a long climb up a mountain he thinks, “My legs burned over the final step, and I wheezed like a wheelchair-bound vet with a tank of oxygen on my ass.” He learns this new world is based on continuous conflict and thinks, “Funny, the similarities of this world and the previous one.” Robbins becomes the long-prophesized Shadebringer, who will help the good guys win.

Hooper

Hooper presents this book in the first-person so we’re constantly aware of what Robbins is thinking. One time it’s, “Prayers meant nothing on Earth, and I assumed they fell on deaf ears here, too.” Other times, it’s, “What exactly happens after death in a place after death?” and, “I’m done fighting for other people over things I couldn’t care less about.”

When Robbins asks what the people want from him, he is told, “Become hope. Become even the smallest candle in this darkness, and you will have our eternal gratitude.” When a short sword is placed in his hand, we realize this interesting story is about to get even more exciting. Bring on the re-animates and the “dreadicans.”

I enjoyed this novel, which put me in mind of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work. I highly recommend Shadebringer for fantasy fiction fans, and encourage all adventure-minded readers to give it a try.

The author’s website is graysonwhooper.com

–Bill McCloud

em by Kim Thuy

Kim Thuy’s em (Seven Stories Press, 160 pp. $21.95) is a poetically written short novel focusing on the heart of the Vietnamese people. The one-word title refers, Kim Thuy says, “to the little brother or little sister in a [Vietnamese] family; or the younger of two friends; or the woman in a couple. I like to think that the word em is the homonym of the verb aimer, ‘to love,’ in French.” The novel is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

Kim Thuy and I arrived in South Vietnam in the same year. Her mother gave birth to her in Saigon in 1968. At just about the same time I landed at nearby Binh Hoa to start my tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Thuy left Vietnam with her family following the communist takeover and now lives in Quebec in Canada.

She says that she writes true stories “incompletely told,” in which “truth is fragmented,” and that our hearts may shudder while reading them. Her new book’s first sentence is, “War, again.” As you read on, you can’t help but mourn for the children of Vietnam: those who were orphaned, those who never knew their American fathers, and all of those who suffered as a result of the war.

We read how French rubber tree plantation managers were forced to negotiate with Americans about the number of trees to cut down to clear the way for vehicles to pass through. In exchange, they were promised protection against U.S. bombs and defoliants.

Thuy writes that combat zones “were likely the only places where human beings became equal to each other through their mutual annihilation.” We read of a young girl carried away from violence and danger by her nanny yet, “Like a cut flower, her childhood faded before it had bloomed.”

We witness the horror of the My Lai massacre. “No one suspected that they were going to set fire to the huts while shooting their weapons with the same eagerness at chickens and humans.” For some involved, “Time would recede, become virgin again, and would begin anew at the origin of the world.” A survivor is unable to remember faces because, “maybe war machines don’t have a human face.”

There is a brief love affair, but even love is orphaned following an accidental death. There are orphans who become prostitutes out of necessity. A young boy with an American father is as completely orphaned as a child can be since he doesn’t even have a name. There are “child-adults.” There are orphans who find other abandoned orphans and bond with them.

We witness the immolation of monks. We watch as Operation Babylift takes thousands of orphans away from the war-torn country. But even there we witness tragedy as the first plane explodes in the air. We watch as the city of Saigon falls to the communists in 1975. And then when it looks like everything has ended, the long-term effects of Agent Orange remain. Always—and still—there is Agent Orange.

In the chapter titled “Points of View,” Thuy writes: “The Americans speak of the ‘Vietnam War,’ the Vietnamese of the ‘American War.’ The distinction is perhaps what explains the cause of that war.”

Kim Thuy ends her unforgettable, softly told story with a reminder that all Vietnamese people, “no matter where they live, descend from a love story between a woman of the immortal race of faeries and a man of the blood of dragons.”  

–Bill McCloud

Jacobo’s Rainbow by David Hirshberg

Can the mystical Jewish demon, the Golem, save the lives of two Army medics in the jungle during the Vietnam War? Did you know that there were Jews living in India for many centuries? Or about people known as “Conversos” who, since the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, have lived outwardly as Catholics but secretly observe Jewish rituals in private, including in communities in the Southwestern United States?

If you read David Hirshberg’s novel, Jacobo’s Rainbow (Fig Tree Books, 352 pp. $15.49, hardcover; $1.99, Kindle), you will find the answers to all of these questions.

In the book the pseudonymous Hirshberg tells how the Jewish people have had to be resilient in resisting anti-Semitism for millennia. The novel is set in Vietnam during the war and at fictional university in New Mexico where a student free speech movement and antiwar protests converge.

The anti-Semitism of a student leader affects some Jewish students who are part of the movement. One thing leads to another and then one of the young Jews is arrested and a judge gives him a choice of going to jail or getting drafted. He chooses the latter and is sent to Vietnam where he undergoes heavy combat. I served in the rear in that war, so I can’t address the accuracy of the book’s combat scenes, but they seem a bit out of sync with the real deal.

In addition to the in-country action, a lot happens on campus as students face off with the college administrators and the police. Plus, we get tepid romances between some of the characters. Ultimately, there is an answer to the question of whether justice will prevail among the book’s characters. 

As someone who is Jewish, who served in the Army in Vietnam, and also was involved in the antiwar movement, I found the depictions of both to be interesting, but not riveting. It is likely that this book will appeal to some Jewish readers. Whether it will be attractive to a broader audience remains to be seen.

— Bruce I. Waxman

The Asian Queen by Fred Yager

Fred Yager’s, The Asian Queen (Hannacroix Creek Books, 195 pp. $16.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), is a delightful homage to the book and classic Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn film, The African Queen. Yager, a poet and novelist, served in the U.S. Navy, including an eighteen-month tour of duty as an embedded journalist and designated war correspondent in the Vietnam War.

The novel is set in 1977 with Monty Tipton living aboard his 32-foot refurbished Navy PBR while he motors up and down the rivers of Vietnam and its neighboring countries. Tipton’s a veteran of the Vietnam War who has decided to stay in Southeast Asia. His boat has been his home for the last eight of his 32 years. He has a reputation for being a loner with a weakness for booze and young Thai girls.

Tipton has been making his living—enough to keep him in fuel and cans of Foster’s beer—by smuggling Cambodians out of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge at a hundred bucks a head. It’s becoming increasingly dangerous, though, and Tipton tells himself that he might just make one last trip into Cambodia.

He typically takes his human cargo to a refugee camp in Thailand. A young woman, Esther Brafford, has recently begun working at the camp, which is sponsored by the U.N. Refugee Commission. She would like to go into Cambodia and treat people. She’s also heard of atrocities on a mass scale being carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Since the U.N. and the U.S. government seem to be ignoring the atrocities, she wants to bring back photographic evidence that would push the Western world to step in.  

Fred Yager

Esther recruits our reluctant, antihero to take her into Cambodia by telling him she knows the location of some buried treasure. After a couple of days on their way to a country that Tipton says “smells like death,” Esther learns that the boat’s engine is on its last legs and her companion typically drinks ten beers a day, then has to drink Jack Daniels at night to stave off nightmares of the war.

They dodge mines, fend off frightening water rats, and evade gunboat blockades. The two are constantly bickering. She calls him a “disgusting degenerate alcoholic.” He counters with: “Of all the boats in the Delta, why’d she have to come aboard mine?”

Writing an homage to a classic work is not as easy as you might think. You don’t just copy the work; you tell a similar, recognizable tale while maintaining the spirit of the original one. Fred Yeager has done that—and more—and in the process has created a love letter to the original film.

–Bill McCloud

The World Played Chess by Robert Dugoni

The World Played Chess (Lake Union Publishing, 400 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $10.pp, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is an important work of Vietnam War fiction even though it’s being marketed as a coming-of-age story (“a young man’s unlikely friendship with a world-weary Vietnam veteran”) to attract more readers. Best-selling author Robert Dugoni did not serve in the military, though he has had a long-time interest in the Vietnam War and its veterans.

Dugoni’s main character, Vincent Bianco, is an attorney with a wife and teenage children. As his son approaches his eighteenth birthday, Vincent thinks back on his life at that same age forty years earlier. His thoughts center on two Vietnam veterans who were on a construction work crew he joined in the summer of 1979 before going off to college.

One of the veterans, William Goodman, who served in the Marine Corps, opens up to Vincent about his wartime experiences as the summer goes on. Goodman kept a journal of his year in Vietnam and, though they’d no contact for decades, he sends it to Vincent because he’s never forgotten that when Vincent would ask him about the war, he would listen attentively. That leads Vincent to dig out a journal that he kept during that summer.

Vincent reminisces about what he learned about the war from Goodman all those years ago and starts reading his Vietnam War journal. He finds the daily entries funny, poignant, sad—and horrible. The novel alternates between Goodman’s 1968 stories and Vincent’s in 1979, and the plot swirls around the stressful year Goodman spent in Vietnam, the lessons he learned, and how those lessons were passed along to a father and his son.

Be prepared for a gut-punch of an ending that takes place at the top of Hill 1338, somewhere in South Vietnam, in which Dugoni searingly sums up America’s experience in the war.

Robert Dugoni writes about the war as if he had been there, though he wasn’t, and that’s not an easy thing to do. In addition to doing a ton of research, a novelist can only pull that off if his or her heart’s in the right place. It’s evident that Dugoni cares about Vietnam War veterans and the unique things that can still be learned from them.

This is the best novel dealing with the Vietnam War and its ongoing legacy I’ve read in a long time.

Dugoni’s website is robertdugonibooks.com

–Bill McCloud

Come Now the Angels by Susan Kummernes

Come Now the Angels: Five Marines in Vietnam: A Woman’s Story of Love, Death, War, & Hope (A Seat at the Table Publishing, 353 pp. $14.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle) the debut novel of Florida author Susan Kummernes, centers on a U.S. Marine Corps gun team stationed in Con Thien near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam in 1967.

Their charismatic gunner, Jesse McGowan, an all-American boy from Maryland, is based on the author’s own first love, who was killed in Vietnam. Fighting alongside him are Mike Redd, an African American from Georgia; Chingas Ramirez, a Mexican American from New York City; Angel Santiago, a Cuban immigrant who settled in Chicago; and John Beau Parker from Florida. Though from diverse backgrounds, the men are forever bonded by their shared experiences in the war.

In between the chapters about the Marines are those detailing the memories of Annie Miller, Jesse’s childhood sweetheart-turned-Washington Post reporter—and a fictional stand-in for Kummernes herself. While on a trip to New Orleans in 2006, Annie encounters a group of Vietnamese Americans protesting the city’s decision to dump the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina in their neighborhood. She meets Lucky Dai, whom she learns is the daughter of Mike Redd and his wife, a Vietnamese nurse named nicknamed Tweet.

Susan Kummernes wrote and researched Come Now the Angels for twelve years, a dedication that shows in the accuracy of the battle scenes and the impressive detail of the 1960s settings. That Kummernes drew from her own experience as well as from outside sources is evident in the level of personal care she shows for her characters and their stories.

The novel’s strengths are somewhat overshadowed by bits of contrived dialogue and Kummernes’ tendency to over explain the social and political context of the story (at one point, Jesse talks so pedantically about the Domino Theory that even the other characters get annoyed). That said, Come Now the Angels is a poignant and compelling novel and would be an excellent choice for anyone interested in the social and emotional effects of the Vietnam War on generations of Americans.

This may be Kummernes last novel. When asked recently by the book and author website Pretty-Hot.com what was next for her, she responded, “As a writer? Nothing.”

Kummernes is donating all proceeds from book sales to Vietnam Veterans of America. Her website is susankummernes.com

–Meg Bywater

The First Stone by Lynn Underwood

The First Stone (High Tide Publications, 293 pp. $12.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a debut novel by Vietnam War veteran Lynn Underwood, who served with the 1st Marine Division as a radio operator and forward observer. The book’s main theme is the meaning of the word “family” in all of its configurations and ramifications. It’s a story in which a tragic secret carried home from the war in Vietnam may not even be a family’s biggest one.

This is a multi-generational story of several families spreading their influence throughout New Mexico from the 1940s through the 1970s, although the story moves into Mexico, Greece, Vietnam, and Southern California, and ends in 2004.

It begins in the mid-1930s when a teenage Mexican girl, Conchita, crosses the border from Juarez with her young child hoping for a better life. Going to work cleaning people’s homes, she gets into a secret relationship with Simon Kouris, who is making a name for himself in the construction business. Her second son, Ray, Jr., is told he will receive a family inheritance if he completes a hitch with the Marine Corps and receives an honorable discharge.

Bartolome Valles is a serious competitor of Kouris’s company. Their rivalry leads to a night of violence. Out of that night comes three deaths and a dark secret.

Zachary Martin grows up working on a farm. In 1969, he’s a Marine corporal in Vietnam. He frequently takes part in search and destroy missions, and after the death of a buddy, receives a Bronze Star for valor. But along with that medal comes a secret he carries that haunts him. Ray Kouris witnesses much of it the incident. In 1973 Martin marries Jordon Valles, a college student and the daughter of Bartolome Valles. This threatens to expose secrets that have been held for years. Redemption and forgiveness play major parts in this story and are embodied in the character of Padre Juan.

This is a novel that Underwood tells by narrowing the story until the midway point, then widening it out after that. It requires the reader to pay attention to keep up with the plot lines, but that’s not a bad thing.

The author’s website is lynnunderwoodauthor.com

–Bill McCloud

If You Walk Long Enough by Nancy Hartney

Nancy Hartney’s new novel, If You Walk Long Enough (Wild Rose Press, 282 pp. $16.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), centers on returning war veterans and the loved ones they are returning to.

Main character Reid Holcombe is on his way home to Beaufort, South Carolina, after a couple of tours in the Vietnam War and the completion of his military service. He takes his time getting home. He winds up hanging out in airports because he’s in no hurry to return to his estranged wife and the family tobacco farm that his sister runs. Mainly, he’s just not sure what he wants to do.

When Reid finally calls his wife, she says, “Come home. I need to make sure you’re not a ghost.” She also says she’s concerned because she can no longer picture him or “smell his essence.”

But instead of returning to the house he shares with his wife, Reid decides to move into a nearby family farm and go to work helping his sister get the tobacco in. Still, he’s not happy about getting back to the fields; he’d joined the Army because he saw it as his ticket off the farm. His sister tells him she knows he didn’t write home because of all the stuff he was dealing with, but then tells him: “Hard stuff happened here, too.”

Hartney writes that even though Reid was far away from the war, he “ate fast, gobbling before the next mortar round hit.” He learns that Big Tobacco companies are trying to squeeze out small farms. At the same time, his neighbors—a Black family whose son also served during the war—are facing increasingly serious racial harassment. Reid begins thinking of South Carolina and Vietnam as “two places, different and the same.”

He continues to stay away from his wife, considering himself to be divorced in all but the strictly legal sense. For her part, Hartney writes, his wife sometimes “wished him dead in Vietnam—only to wither from guilt at the thought.” She also flirted with having a relationship while he was gone, while he has his own wartime secret.

Nancy Hartney

Feeling a sense of crushing guilt from what he did in Vietnam and the secret he still carries from it—while at the same time wrestling with new relationships with family and neighbors—Reid finds himself fighting Big Tobacco and the sickening racism he had not faced before going to Vietnam.

The book is divided into 62 short chapters with most of the story taking place in 1970. Hartney’s novel expresses beautifully the reality of veterans returning home from Vietnam to a world that had not stood still while they were gone. 

(Full disclosure: I am thanked on the Acknowledgments section of this book based on a few conversations I had with the author and my early reading of the manuscript.)

Hartney’s website is https://nancyhartney.com/

–Bill McCloud