Sunshine Blues by Bob Calverley

In his new novel, Sunshine Blues (526 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), Bob Calverley tells two stories that are not really all that connected —except for the fact that they take place at the same time. Calverley was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1967 and served a 1968-69 tour in Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh.

Sunshine Blues, his third novel, is set in 1968. Half of it centers on Jimmy Hayes, a crew chief in an Army assault helicopter company. While he’s half-way through his tou, his sixteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, Gloria Doran in Detroit experiences a trauma-causing incident and then discovers that her life is being threatened. Plus, Gloria still has whip marks on her back she received at the hands of her evil stepfather. She experiences PTSD every bit as much as her boyfriend will.

Gloria witnessed two deaths in Detroit while men were mysteriously dying around Jimmy in South Vietnam. While coming to the end of a difficult pregnancy, Gloria learns that Jimmy is missing after surviving a helicopter crash that killed three other men. She doesn’t know that he’s been captured by some sort of Vietnamese militia unit and taken deep into a tunnel complex where he will be put on trial for murdering Vietnamese civilians.

Bob Calverley in country

That scene comes off as a surreal incident that works well, especially when you consider many of the bizarre aspects of the American war in Vietnam.

Calverley says stories he heard at reunions of his Vietnam War unit are in the novel, though he admits that “Year after year the stories keep getting better. The line between fact and fiction blurs with the passage of time. Or maybe it’s the consumption of the adult beverages.”

The novel includes a maniac who likes to chop off fingers, arson, child abuse, drug trafficking, flight crew fatigue, illegal nightclubs, money laundering, murder, organized crime, police abuse, sabotage, suicide, and international sex trafficking. It’s divided into more than sixty short chapters that keep the action moving—and moving around. At one point three consecutive chapters are entitled “Cu Chi,” “Detroit,” and “Nui Binh.” Plus, each story could stand alone if told separately.

All of which makes Sunshine Blues an unusual book. I found the sections on Jimmy’s Vietnam War experiences to be quite intriguing—and the strongest part of the novel.  

The author’s website is bobcalverley.com/sunshine-blues

–Bill McCloud

Hyperventilated Underwater Blues by Bob Calverley

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Bob Calverley was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1967 and served a 1968-69 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh. His first novel, Purple Sunshine, which we reviewed on these pages, is set in Vietnam and back home. His unusual second novel, Hyperventilated Underwater Blues (Amazon Digital, 338 pp., $4.99, Kindle), is a murder mystery set entirely in the U.S.A. with a few mentions of the military and the Vietnam War.

The book’s hero is a guy named Rick Short. Rick happens to be short, but he is also a swimmer, which makes his height unimportant. The book is a mixture of fantasy and reality and it is difficult to figure where one stops and the other picks up.

This the first book in which I read that a tour in Vietnam could bring back childhood stuttering. At least, I think that was the claim.

“I stuttered when I was a kid, but I mostly got over it until I almost got killed by a rocket in ‘Nam,” a character says. “Killed a guy who was talking to me. Got hit in the head by a big piece of shrapnel when he was right in the middle of a sentence. All I got was a few pieces in my arm. Minor shit, but my stuttering came back. Worse than when I was a kid.”

A teen-aged girl swimmer is murdered, drowned on her 18th birthday. That’s what this book is about. If you are a fan of university swimming, the book will hold more interest for you. Much of the book takes place in or near an aquatic center, and that’s fine with me.

This isn’t the usual Vietnam War-influenced book populated by mosquitoes and leeches. In fact, the book gets nowhere near Vietnam. It’s a nice change of pace. Thanks go to Bob Calverley for that.

The author took up masters swimming when his knees gave out from running cross country, so he appreciates a change of pace. Most of us do.

As someone said, variety is the spice of life.  This book provides that needed variety.

The author’s website is bobcalverley.com

—David Willson

Purple Sunshine by Bob Calverley

 

Bob Calverley was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967 and served for a year in the Vietnam War with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh. Calverley spent most of his tour in Vietnam as company clerk, but occasionally flew as a helicopter door gunner. After the war, he worked in journalism and public relations.

Purple Sunshine: Sex & Drugs, Rock & Roll, Peace & Love (Stone Thread Publishing, 416 pp., $6.95, Kindle) is a work of fiction but seems to be informed by the author’s familiarity with the sixties music scene and the sixties Vietnam War scene. Calverley presents the knowledge that comes from being an insider in both areas.

When Private Jimmy Hayes, a talented guitarist and a band leader back home, gets off the Boeing 707 in Vietnam he comments on the heat and humidity, and “then the smell hit.” He goes through the Repo Depo and is assigned to the 99th Assault Helicopter Company in the fictional Nui Binh, where he soon encounters the smell of shit burning.

Nui Binh is “probably not far from the Tay Ninh Base Camp where the 187th was stationed,” we are told. Jimmy should be assigned as a prop and rotor repair specialist, but that does not happen as damaged parts are thrown away and replaced with new ones, so he becomes a door gunner.

Our hero has left behind his pregnant fifteen-year old girlfriend, Gloria, known as Sunshine. She is being pursued by the Mafia, her wicked stepfather who abused her, and by the police who connect her to a murder she did not commit.  She is also musically talented and writes and sings and plays guitar wherever she can. Much is made of how talented and physically lovely she is. The book’s cover shows us her attributes.

The ARVN are presented as “cowardly bastards,” but the South Vietnamese Rangers receive high praise. The book presents Jimmy’s wartime experiences and Sunshine’s adventures at home in alternate chapters. They both have it rough, with Sunshine sleeping in steam tunnels, cadging food, and playing for her supper on street corners, and Jimmy dealing with war-zone dangers. This is effective in showing the war at home counter-pointed with the war in Vietnam.

Calverley “tried to make these events and all of the settings in my story as realistic as possible,” he says. He gets high marks for that, and also for being a gifted storyteller.

Bob Calverley

Jimmy happens to be in-country for Tet 1968. I was anticipating that time to approach, as I figured there would be lots of action. I was not disappointed. A VC assault on the bunker that houses Jimmy and some malcontent friends is excitingly rendered.

Because of the alternating chapters, home and war, this is not the usual infantry novel, for which I am grateful. The home-front chapters are every bit as interesting and exciting as the war chapters are, and there is plenty of violence in both. There are believable villains in both places, too, and a novel like this benefits from having bad guys.

The author makes the point that the bad guys he portrays in Vietnam are not based on the men with whom he served. He has high praise for American officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted men.

This novel does not disappoint in touching bases with the familiar motifs of in-country Vietnam War novels. John Wayne, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” Agent Orange, baby killers—all that stuff and more is worked into the novel deftly and in a manner that enriches it.

If you are in the mood to read a novel of the late sixties that gives equal time to the home front and to the Vietnam War—and has a lot of violence and even some sex—this might be the book for you. It is well-written and well edited and moves right along.

I liked it so much that I read it on my Kindle in one sitting.

The author’s website is http://bobcalverley.com

—David Willson

Bob Calverley in Vietnam