Blood on the Risers by Michael O’Shea

Michael O’Shea, the author of Blood on the Risers: A Novel of Conflict and Survival in Special Forces During the Vietnam War, (AuthorHouse, 500 pp., $35.99, hardcover; $26.95, paper), left college and enlisted in the Army in 1966. He volunteered for  Vietnam in 1969 and went on to serve as the commanding officer of a Special Forces A Team on the Cambodian border. At twenty-one, O’Shea was the youngest captain to command a Special Forces A-Team in Vietnam.

This long novel is more than half over before the main character, Michael Shanahan, reaches Vietnam. The first half of the book is an engrossing, dynamite story about a way of life as alien to me as life on Mars. It starts in Texas on the edge of the King Ranch with a couple of teenage boys, high school jocks, on private property poaching deer and driving souped-up cars to elude the game warden. This part of the book seems right out of Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road.

I figured the two boys, of whom Mike is one, would grow up to be career criminals. I was wrong. They become heroes in Vietnam. The boys I knew in Yakima, Washington, in the 1950s who led this sort of life did end up in prison, or they died young in car accidents.

The author is not kidding when he tells us that the book is based on a true story. Mike Shananhan’s story closely follows the early boyhood and war exploits of Michael O’Shea.

There is a lot to like about this book, and also a lot to loathe. The punctuation is a major stumbling block. O’Shea, for one thing, uses the ellipsis instead of comas, semi-colons or dashes, all honorable methods of punctuating a sentence. He doesn’t seem to know that the ellipsis is used to indicate that something has been left out.

O’Shea (above) uses as many as ten sets of ellipsis in a single sentence and as many as fifty on one page. There are thousands of them in the book, and every time I encountered one, it made me pause.

What had the author left out?  Nothing—he just doesn’t know the fundamentals of writing. And he didn’t hire an editor who could help with that and with the many, many word-usage errors in the book.

The author finds room to mention Bob Hope, draft card burnings, baby killing, and John Wayne so many times I lost track, but General Westmoreland didn’t make an appearance. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Bob Hope and John Wayne played an important part in the Vietnam War.

And then there’s Jane Fonda. It seems that Vietnam veterans who have the time, money, and motivation to write and self-publish books about their time in the military—O’Shea included—have forgotten that Jane Fonda was a popular pin-up in Vietnam for American soldiers in Vietnam.

Near the very end of the book, when Mike Shanahan is returning home from his tour, he indulges in a rant about “Hanoi Jane Fonda.”  Jane Fonda’s ill-advised trip to Hanoi, for which she has apologized endlessly, was in the future, 1972. I believe that Mike Shanahan was home well before that date. This error illustrates the lack of fact checking that mars this book.

The end of the book is dominated by such false memories.  At this time, Jane Fonda did not hold “the admiration and support of the sheep back home.” Far from it. Fonda got little attention for her supposedly being a traitor by going to Hanoi before the war was over—something a good number of other Americans did as well—until several years after the war. Nobody thought of Jane Fonda as “Hanoi Jane” in 1970 or 1971.

If you want to read a Vietnam Special Forces book, please consult my earlier reviews of such books—books that are well punctuated and not marred by false memories.

—David Willson