David Means is the author of four story collections. His first novel, Hystopia (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 352 pp., $26), is an alternative history of the seventies in which John F. Kennedy has survived multiple assassination attempts and is still president while the Vietnam War continues.
Means has created yet another in a long list of novels that take us to the heart of American darkness in the Vietnam War. In this one faith in high-tech sensors designed to detect VC urination patterns goes unbounded. With our fire power and our sneaky-peepy expertise, the book seems to say, how can we lose? Well, let me count the ways.
I now wish I hadn’t used the word “phantasmagorical” to describe previous Vietnam War novels. I should have reserved the word for this book. But, then again, I didn’t know this one was coming.
Means has produced many brilliant short stories. Some of his most serious fans had given up on him producing the Great American Novel they hoped for from him. But here it is. And it’s a Vietnam War novel, sort of.
It has everything—and I do mean everything: elephant grass, rice paddies, the Mekong Delta, jungle rot, slogging, ambushes, crew cuts, taking a hill, losing a hill, choppers, water buffalo, dust-offs. And that list is on just one page.
Means’ novel is mostly about an all-encompassing federal agency that JFK has created: the Psych Corps. “Dedicated to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene by any means necessary.” Can traumas be overcome? This novel seems to hold little hope for that.
Characters opine that rich kids evaded the war and that most of the folks who went fell into the group called Mac’s morons. Means uses a lot of pop culture fodder in this book: the Phantom Blooper, Norman Rockwell, the Big Two-Hearted River, Huckleberry Finn, Tarzan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles.
We get asked how many Vietnam veterans it takes to screw in a light bulb. The answer: You can’t know; you weren’t there.
There’s lots of pontificating about what it is that makes up a true war story. Tim O’Brien grappled with that question decades ago in The Things They Carried. I believe he provided a better answer.
This book lacks a story that make me care about any of the characters, even though JFK’s sister made me sad. Still, I would suggest dipping into this book and seeing what’s there. You’ll find a lot of food for thought.
But I didn’t really need more of that. Or didn’t want any more.