Sweden by Matthew Turner

 

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Lance Cpl. James Earle Harper, an African American from Mississippi, is badly wounded at Khe Sanh saving the life of his lieutenant. In the Cam Ranh Bay hospital, just before Christmas 1967, he is visited by—not Santa—but by President Johnson, who pins a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to his hospital gown.

Harper is central to Sweden (The Mantle, 327 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.95, Kindle), Matthew Turner’s first novel. In the 1990s, Turner, a New Zealander, was living in Japan, working as a freelance translator, he said in an article on his publisher’s website. That’s when he learned of a late-1960s group called the Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to Anti-War U.S. Deserters (JATEC), the underground arm of Beheiren, the Citizens’ Federation for Peace in Vietnam.

The desertion rate for the Vietnam War peaked “at 73.5 per 1,000 troops in 1971, well above the highest figures from World War II (63 per 1,000 troops in 1944) and the Korean War (22.3 per 1,000 in 1953),” Turner writes in a historical note. JATEC’s role in helping Vietnam War deserters was a small but fascinating one.

Turner started writing this novel in 2010. “[M]ost of the primary sources I relied on in researching Sweden were written in Japanese by people involved with the group,” he said. Another important source was Terry Whitmore’s 1971 memoir ,Memphis, Nam, Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter.

Whitmore was the model for Earle Harper, who, after his encounter with LBJ, is flown to Japan for rehab at a U.S. military hospital. He’s told his next stop probably will be the States. Instead, he is ordered back to Vietnam and a war he no longer believes in. So he deserts.

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Matthew Turner

So does another character, Eddie Flynn, a seaman apprentice on a U.S. hospital ship, after gruesome chores with the triage unit and in the morgue led to spells in the brig and drug addiction. Flynn spends one month as a patient in the naval mental health unit in Yokosuka. Pronounced fit for return to duty, he simply walks away.

In alternating chapters, Turner tells Flynn’s story, and Harper’s, and that of a rowdy trio of teenagers. He also shares absorbing details on Japan’s past, geography, religion, culture, and cuisine; recreates several days of a violent student strike at Nihon University; and portrays life at a hippie commune, a way station for American deserters.

The narrative keeps moving, thanks to Turner’s efficient prose, as well as an attractive supporting cast. The Beat poet Gary Snyder shows up at a Buddhist temple. And JATEC operatives—the jazz enthusiast Masuda among them—show resourcefulness in guiding the deserters on their individual perilous journeys.

There’s no guarantee of reaching the country’s far north, embarkation point for the next leg of the escape.

–Angus Paul

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Why? By P.J. Dodge

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P.J. Dodge lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with her husband. Her father was a disabled veteran who has spent much of his life fighting for his veterans benefits and for the compensation he felt he had coming to him. Her veteran husband was diagnosed with cancer and with PTSD, and also has tried to receive veterans benefits and appropriate compensation. He continues to fight for his benefits today and the government continues to deny his compensation claims.

Dodge wrote Why? (Page Publishing, 245 pp., $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) when she realized that her father’s and husband’s problems with the VA were “not isolated instances but experiences many of our Veterans continually faced.”

Why?, a novel, is heavily based on the real-life experiences of the author, her husband, and her father. It is meant, she writes, to bring to light “the plight of so many that will not speak out but are fighting for medical, psychological, and monetary help.”

The novel starts off with a sentence that sets the tone for the entire book: “When Raoul showed up at the VA for his appointment to try to fast-track his benefits request, he knew deep down in his heart it was a lost cause.”

The band of veterans who make up the main crew of this novel seem mostly to have been Rangers, Green Berets, SEAL,s and members of other elite military units. No clerks and jerks allowed.

The story line, in a nutshell, consists of setting up a new My Lai massacre, but this time a massacre aimed at eliminating those who run the VA. Why? Because those VA people are  responsible for siphoning off funds intended for needy veterans and using those funds for their own lives as fat cats, driving big flashy cars, wearing three-piece suits, and eating expensive meals at the taxpayers’ expense.

The message of the book is that “our enemy is the VA.” The level of animosity toward the VA is high and is unremitting. Shooting VA doctors is mentioned as though it is a reasonable thing to do. “John Wayne and the Calvary” are mentioned as co-conspirators, and that is how “cavalry” is spelled in the book.

I gave up counting the mentions of beer and Jim Beam consumed in the course of this story line. Food and drink dominate this narrative, but not to the extent that firearms do, such as “two M79 grenade launchers and a .50 cal. Machine gun.”

veterans-benefits-2The heart of the bitterness of this book is that those of us who went to war “to keep their precious offspring out of danger” came back and were made to feel like second-class citizens and were attacked.

Those who need a book that preaches this message should get this one.

Those who have received good care at the VA—and I am quick to say that I have—would do well to steer clear.

—David Willson

The Romanovsky Stain by Duke Zimmer

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Duke Zimmer is the pseudonym of a writer, producer, and director who has produced more than fifty nonfiction films and has written scores of newspaper and magazine articles. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent five years in Western Europe during the height of the Cold War as a counterintelligence agent with the 66th Military Intelligence Brigade. He served as a recon scout with the Echo Company of 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry. in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam from December 1969 to November 1970 when he was wounded in action.

The Romanovsky Stain: After Action Report (Tate Publishing, 320 pp., $4.50, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the first of five novels in a series featuring Jacob Steiner as the main character and narrator. Steiner shares much of his military history with his creator, having also served “a stint with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.” He says he left with enough shrapnel in his body to set off a metal detector seven feet away.

Steiner “got a gig with the CIA through a friend and former teammate in Vietnam, Daniel Bornaire,” Zimmer writes. “We called him Zippo, Zip for short.” Officially he was a trade rep, but unofficially he was a spy.

The Romanovsky Stain is a spy novel of the sort that all readers of spy novels are familiar with.  The hero starts off as a captive, chained to a pipe in the hold of a ship and hopeful that if he gets free, he might have a chance of making it to the side of the ship, jump overboard, and swim to shore. This sort of derring-do is fun to read about if it is made half-way believable. Zimmer—presumably drawing on his actual experiences—does make it both fun and believable.

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Zimmer

There is much mention of the Vietnam War in this book, including one character saying in passing, “the toughest job in Nam was being a nurse.” There’s also this comment about high-tech weapons: “If we’d had this stuff in Nam, there’s no telling.” John Wayne gets a mention, and typical nicknames are used for characters, such as “Pinto,” who has a wine stain birthmark on his face.

My favorite comment in this book about the war is that “in Vietnam, we often slept with one eye open. People don’t believe it’s possible. Believe me, it is.” Maybe Tarzan could do it, but it’s hard to believe that recon teams in the bush would get any real sleep, one-eyed or two. If you do believe that anyone can sleep with one eye open, perhaps this is the book for you.

There will be four more of them featuring Jacob Steiner. That’s both a warning and a promise.

—David Willson

Memory Lane: The 60’s by John Leone

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John Leone’s novel, Memory Lane: the 60’s (CreateSpace, 356 pp., $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), is a large book dealing with American popular culture, mostly from 1962-64. The Vietnam War does not rear its ugly head until near the end of the book.

To wit this passage from 1964: “Louie strolled down and gleefully told us that by this time next year, we’d be fighting a war in some place called Vietnam. It seemed the North Vietnamese had fired on one of our ships over in Asia.”

“By the end of 1965,” Leone writes, “almost all of us had received our notices.”

That’s exactly how it happened to me. My notice arrived late in December 1965, I accepted induction into the Army because that is what my grandfather, Homer Willson, had done. I didn’t wish to be a Marine like my father or to go into the Navy like my Uncle Roy.

Leone was told that because he broke his arm, when the cast came off and he’d done some rehab, he’d have a chance to re-enlist and be moved up to Specialist 6th class with a bonus of $8,000.  Not an offer that came my way. Far from it.

With the Vietnam War only arriving near the end, the bulk of the book deals with such early sixties subjects as rock and roll and there are references to “Teen Angel,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “My Boyfriend’s Back.” That old standby, “Soldier Boy,”  pops up on page 333.

This work of comedic fiction is described as being “fictionalized, some exaggerated and some (hopefully) funny.” That’s honest enough.  I would have liked Leone to tell us about his background. On his website, Leone reports that he served in the Army as a helicopter crew chief and mechanic in the Vietnam War. In this book he chooses not to let the reader know that. His previous book was a Vietnam War memoir, Us Guys: The Army in the 60s

This book would have benefited from photos, but alas, there are none. There are things to enjoy here, but the story is so personal that some things slide by with little impact.

I recommend this book to those who don’t let anything about the 60s elude them.

The author’s website is johnleonebooks.com

—David Willson

Sagahawk by the Sea John F. Bronzo

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The Vietnam War figures in John Bronzo’s latest novel, Sagahawk by the Sea: A Love Story Changes History (Archway, 270 pp., $34.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper’ $3.99, e book), but it comes along relatively late in the story. This is a novel of time travel, so the story moves anywhere and anytime the author wants it to go.

This time travel novel begins in 1961, then proceeds in sections to 1967. Bronzo—whose previous book was Mary Bernadette: Secrets of a Dallas Moon: A Young Vietnamese Girl’s Tale from the Grave about the Killing of JFK—dedicates this new book in part to his high school classmate, Peter E. Sipp, know as “Dude.” Sipp “was killed in Vietnam when he threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies,” Bronzo writes, “sacrificing his life so they could live out theirs.”

This novel includes the author’s explanation of what really happened on July 7, 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico, with that mysterious crash of a so-called flying saucer. One of the characters in this novel is sent there to investigate.

“At first it was said to have been a flying saucer, but later it was identified as a weather balloon,” Bronzo writes.

This novel jumbles up time so that unexpected things happen to those who are affected by the mutants that show up in Roswell with a warning to Americans related to Russian missiles in Cuba and God knows what else.

“If 1965 is the year that Vietnam first invaded my consciousness, 1966 is the year that Vietnam caught the nation’s attention in earnest,” Bronzo writes. “Protests against the war became a commonplace occurrence on college campuses, in cities across the country, and on everyone’s television screen.”

That’s true as far as it goes, but this book, as most books do, makes it seem as though everyone in this country was talking and thinking about the Vietnam War. But most of us were not searching our souls.

The National Guard and the Reserves get a mention as refuge for “the savvy” and the well connected draft evaders and that others were fleeing to Canada. Most draft age men, just hoped for the best and went along with whatever came their way. That included your reviewer.

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Bronzo

For those who enjoy conjecture about the options available in history, including during the Vietnam War, Sagahawk by the Sea might be the novel for you.

As the subtitle has it, “A Love Story Changes History.” Read the novel and see if you agree that that really happens.

Bronzo’s website is johnfbronzo.wordpress.com

—David Willson

Keep Forever: A Novel by Alexa Kingaard

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In her novel, Keep Forever (BookBaby, 268 pp., $14.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Alexa Kingaard thanks the Veteran’s Writing Group in Oceanside, California, which gave her “shelter from the storm.” Keep Forever, she writes, is based on her experiences living with and “tragically losing” a Vietnam War veteran.

The book tells the story of Paul O’Brien, a Marine who returns from the war with terrible burdens he shares with those he loves. “It was inspired by the Vietnam neterans I have known and loved,” Kingaard writes, “and their lifelong struggles with PTSD.”

Paul O’Brien wants to make a nightmare-free life for himself, but his sleep is disturbed by guilt. Blurbs from readers say that they couldn’t put the novel down once they started reading it, even when they were sobbing. I admit to shedding a few tears myself.

Late in the book we are told that “no amount of visits to the VA were fixing the problem, and the answers from the overworked and understaffed medical facility were always the same. ‘It’s the best we can do. We don’t have the resources. You have to wait like everyone else. It’s a long line.’”

That’s the tune my friends and I frequently heard in the years immediately after the war and for a long time after that. However, things have improved at my local VA (in the Seattle area).They may not have not improved elsewhere.

Paul O’Brien comes alive on the page as a seriously disturbed veteran, but also as a believable one. He keeps a duffel bag packed at all times to take with him when he leaves the house so he is prepared for all exigencies. He is very slow to get ready and is usually late for all appointments—if he makes them at all.

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Alexa Kingaard

When his wife suggests he see a therapist, his reaction is, “Definitely not. That would be cowardly and weak.”

He remains on high alert at all times. He postpones going to see his doctor, even though he has serious symptoms.

When he finally goes to the doctor, he’s told he has stage-four prostate cancer, and it’s too late for Paul O’Brien. He was a lifelong collector, storing and hoarding his treasures intending to leave them as his legacy to those he loved. Or so he told himself.

He would have been wiser to give them the gift of himself. Most likely all that junk would prove a burden to his loved ones.

If you are looking for a very sad book that tells the familiar story of a veteran unable to get past his war, this book could be the one for you.

The author’s website is alexakingaard.com

–David Willson

Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin by Dennis Latham

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Dennis Latham’s novel, Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin (YS Gazelle, 200 pp., $16, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is fiction, almost embarrassingly so. Latham is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam. The book’s blurbs refer to constant laughter provoked in readers by the crazy antics of the characters in this novel. I didn’t have that problem.

The plot of the novel—first published in 2009—concerns the plight of John Elvin, who is twenty-four years old and still a virgin. He is determined to change that status, but he has no idea how to go about doing that. Not a clue. The virgin he meets, Lori Anderson, is eager to help Elvin with his plight, but her eagerness does not translate to anything much happening with any dispatch.

There is a crazy Vietnam veteran in this novel, John’s brother. He was wounded in the war so that his head resembles a butt, which seems funny to everyone but me.

This book has large print and wide margins and can be read in a jiffy, but it still seemed slow going to me. It takes place the summer of 1982, “before HIV made sex an extreme risk, back when condoms were called rubbers,” Latham writes.

It was a different, primitive time. No cell phones, home computers, or satellite TV. So, I guess the book works as a cultural artifact of a certain time and place in America. But I did not find it to be funny.

—David Willson