Circus of the Absurd by James O’Leary

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In Circus of the Absurd (Focused Publishing, 375 pp. $15.95, paper; $5.95, Kindle),  James O’Leary definitely reigns as ringmaster. Based on the cover or the title page, the book’s contents are either “Notes from the Clown Car, Vietnam 67-68,” or “A Novel Look at our War in Vietnam.” In both cases, “absurd” rings true.

The novel also serves as Jim O’Leary’s war memoir. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he says he had input from “several fellow Vietnam veterans” at an Orlando VFW post.

The book’s stories live up to the “circus” in the title: Practically everyone Leary describes had an act. Usually it was a scam to make money or to abuse power. O’Leary himself tried illegal money exchanging and ghost writing before settling on black market PX Courvoisier cognac. That income financed his acting-out desires. Along the way, he met many interesting people with clever schemes, such as manufacturing and selling counterfeit war souvenirs.

O’Leary’s storytelling has no boundaries. His ability to embellish events reminded me of Carl Hiaasen‘s talent for amusing readers. He examines whatever trips through his mind. At one point, he resolves the arguments surrounding John Kennedy’s assassination. Occasionally, I tuned him out, but his determination to entertain soon won me back. The humor often hides within irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and ridicule.

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O’Leary’s main desire centered on carnal pursuit of women. His success in this quest proved formidable and made me recall the escapades in Tom Jones. Sexually, there was no such thing as too much, but friendship also counted.

Trained as an armor crewman, O’Leary’s bachelor’s degree in journalism earned him a job as an Army information specialist USARV headquarters at Tan Son Nhut and, later, Long Binh. He worked days and met his obligations, but his nights were free and Saigon’s women called. A twenty-three year old draftee with no real responsibility, he behaved more like a man on vacation than a soldier in a war zone. He describes one day as “doing my perpetual tourist thing.”

Not unexpectedly, the war intruded on his pleasure and O’Leary witnessed the deaths of friends and foes, along with being a target himself. Defending a base perimeter constituted his major contribution to the war, and that too turned farcical. He finished his tour by returning to Saigon from a Bangkok R&R amid the 1968 Tet Offensive, a tale that could stand alone as a novella.

O’Leary’s wartime journey followed a path well worn by others, but his approach was highly personalized. Here’s his summary of the Vietnam War:

“I had to hand it to LBJ. If you’re going to hold a war, do it somewhere warm, with an abundance of beautiful women, a low cost standard of living, and a very benign attitude toward unbridled sex, smoking dope, and other assorted hedonistic pursuits.”

Even a one-way ticket to Hell might possibly provide first-class seating.

—Henry Zeybel

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