True North by Roger Rooney

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The hero of Roger Rooney’s novel True North (Volcano Mountain, 296 pp., $19.95, paper; $0.99, Kindle), Jack Burns, is one of the few Australians serving in the Vietnam War in the early 1960s. As much as he hopes it will provide him some distinction, Burns’ path seems destined for disappointment. Or worse.

Burns arrives in country with energy and ambition. But there’s heat and chaos and the frustration of working as an adviser in a place where advice is the last thing anyone wants to hear.

Rooney tells of Burns’ growing disenchantment with the war, along with the story of a young North Vietnamese woman who is with a detachment of NVA troops heading south to make war on the Americans. She, too, is disenchanted. Readers will wonder whether their paths will cross.

Burns wants to remain optimistic, but he cannot escape the conflicting directives of the war. The ARVN’s track record suggests that its objective is not winning the war, but preventing another next coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s American-backed leader. Before being installed as Prime Minister, Diem was a religious mystic in Bruges, Belgium. His only qualification for the job was his staunchly anti-communist views.

Burns isn’t on the ground long before someone sets him straight: The apparent truth he sees isn’t real.

“Charlie owns the night and has damn near paid off his mortgage on the day,” Rooney writes. “That little man is on the march straight to this very room. He’d be here in a few days if it wasn’t for our airstrikes and choppers. The South Vietnamese don’t go on search and destroy missions. They go on search and avoid missions.”

Nevertheless, Burns is eager to get to the front. Too soon, he gets his wish.

As Ryan “launched himself into the water, he saw a yellow fireball explode and flames suck high into the air and spray burning jelly across the paddies,” Rooney writes. “He gulped down a huge breath as small tornadoes whipped amongst the rice stalks, caught in the rising heat like satanic spears intent on puncturing the heavens. He hurled himself into the water, grabbing frantically for a fistful of rice stalks. His only hope was to anchor himself as deep as possible underwater.”

Later, as the battle rages on and monkeys shriek in the branches above, the young NVA woman is captured. She will try to warn Burns away from a booby trap. But it’s too late.

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Rooney

Burns is badly wounded. He’ll land in the hospital and, from there, descend into a hell of opium and despair. We are left wondering, and perhaps hoping, that we’ve seen a glimpse of a connection that may yet take place.

Both he and the young woman, Tran, are characters we care about. Rooney’s development of their stories is smart and well-told. There are taut, wonderfully descriptive passages that carry us through to an ending that is as hard and desperate as the war itself.

Readers will forgive occasional inconsistencies in the writing, although there are a disconcerting number of typographical errors in the book. Nevertheless, True North is well worth a read.

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

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Best We Forget by Bernard Clancy

For much of Bernard Clancy’s novel, Best We Forget (Indra, 420 pp., $16.50, paperback; $7.99, Kindle), we are locked inside the head of a young Australian serviceman, Donkey Simpson, where we are never far from what Clancy calls “a slice of madness.”

Donkey Simpson is stationed in Saigon for a year. He spends much of that time swimming in beer, hoping and praying to survive. But it’s not just his life Simpson wants to retain. It’s his sanity, his sense of order and, perhaps, his patriotism.

It isn’t long before the wide-eyed Simpson comes to realize there is no order here, only chaos. As for the mission, it changes from day to day, depending on who’s giving the orders and what mood they’re in.

There is occasional violence and a backdrop of intrigue. But mostly there is gnawing heat and relentless boredom. Simpson struggles to pass the time and lusts for a young Asian woman who turns out to be a spy. Given what he will learn about the lives of the “nogs,” as he calls them, Simpson is torn between a sense of sympathy and one of betrayal.

So he swings between caring and hatred—for her and for all the faces he passes on the street. The solution: bar girls, beer and—when he can find it—air conditioning.

Best We Forget is fiction. But the author, who served in Vietnam in 1968-69, paints a realistic picture of the desolation of the country, the lack of clarity in the mission, and the uncertainty of the allies’ commitment.

Truth and clear-headedness often comes—not from the leadership—but from privates and corporals, as we see in an early exchange between two young soldiers talking about the Tet Offensive.

That will never happen again, one says. “Don’t bet on it,” comes the reply. “Charlie’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

After months of duty, Simpson begins to wear down.

“He began going out more often, drinking more,” Clancy writes. “He even began buying Saigon teas for bar girls, anything to relieve the boredom, to escape the crushing reality of what, like so many before and around him, he was beginning to see as a complete and utterly pointless exercise. Worse, he felt chained into a madness which suffocated and choked. And the more he squirmed, the tighter the chains twisted.”

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Clancy

Clancy paints a vivid picture of life in Saigon.

“As Matthews weaved the Land Rover through millions of motor scooters and motorbikes, pushbikes and the clapped-out relics of French cars, he saw a huge, filthy, stinking slum. People wandered listlessly among roadside huts made from cardboard boxes and slabs of American beer-can stamped sheet metal; rubbish, filth, refuse, everything just dumped everywhere. Buildings, filthy, old, dilapidated, falling to pieces.

“The stench almost turned Donkey’s stomach inside out. Exhaust smoke from the motorbikes blued the air. And God it was hot.”

 

Clancy is at his best when he shows us what he’s seen. For that reason, some readers might wish for a bit more description and a bit less escapism.

The author’s website is bernardclancy.net

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

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

Vietnam…Viet-Bloody-Nam by Davide A. Cottone

Davide E. Cottone’s Vietnam… Viet-Bloody-Nam (P.I.E. Books, 270 pp., $26.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is about Manfred and Tony, two Australians born shortly after World War II who grow up to be close friends. They take very different paths, but late in the book—and late in their lives—they reunite.

Manfred’s  number comes up, and he goes into the Australian Army, and is sent to Vietnam. Tony goes to college and become a leader in the antiwar movement.

Early in the novel Manfred reflects: “He knew that every person who came back from active duty in war was damaged goods to some extent.” There is no doubt in this reader’s mind that the author of this book thinks that is so. The book is written to make that point and the point that the Vietnam War “became one foul deed for another.”

Manfred arrives in Vung Tau on February 3, 1969, when the “whole country was writhing in the shadow of the previous year’s major Tet Offensive.”  He is posted to Nui Dat Camp in Central Phuoc Tuy Province. His duties are described as “counter-insurgency—cordon and search.”

As a craftsman, Manfred is assigned to the 102nd Field Workshop at the First Australian Logistics Support Group. He works as an armorer, looking after small arms and as an armament fitter who maintains and repairs heavier equipment. After being in-country for a while, “what he could not understand was why the Viet Cong could not surrender.”

He points out that in World War II the average soldier spent forty days in combat.  In Vietnam, he says, the average soldier had 240 days of combat in just one year. He sees himself and other troops as sustainable cannon fodder. Much is made of Agent Orange and what it can do.  Napalm also is discussed.

When a tank detonates a land mine Manfred takes a massive hit to his right ankle and his left thigh and shrapnel to his chest. When he returns to Australia, he and other Vietnam veterans are met with hostility at airports and are called baby killers, spat upon, and pelted with eggs and rotten tomatoes.

It seems that the vilification of Vietnam veterans took place in Australian as well as in the United States. Gen. William Westmoreland is quoted as saying life is cheap in Asia. It is mentioned that the VFW refused membership to Vietnam veterans.

I have not read many novels or memoirs about the Australian participation in the Vietnam War, so I found this one an eye-opener. However, I’d hoped for better in Australia.

Aussie troops locked and loaded after a mission outside Bien Hoa in 1965

Lots of space is devoted to Tony’s very different life at home as a hippie antiwar protester. Tony “frolicked with the nymphs, swam with the fairies and floated on clouds of marijuana” while Manfred was “crashing and bashing [his] way through the jungles in Vietnam, in the mud, and the rain, being bitten by mozzies and sucked on by leeches.”  I guess we all had a choice, and these days I find myself thinking often that I made the wrong one.

Those readers eager for information about how the Vietnam War affected Australia will learn a lot by reading this novel, as there is a lot of potted history in it, and the author is a talented story teller. I enjoyed much of the book.

—David Willson