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.”
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
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.