Down Along the Piney by John Mort

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John Mort, one of America’s premier storytellers, served in the Vietnam War with the First Cavalry Division. His story, “Hog Whisperer,” received the 2013 Spur Award for best short story from the Western Writers of America.  Mort writes edge-of the seat fictional masterpieces, presenting characters for us to root for and cherish, as well as the other kind. They are all-American people who breathe on the page—people we wish we knew, people we do know, or people we are happy we have yet to encounter.

Mort’s latest collection, Down Along the Piney: Ozark Stories (University of Notre Dame Press, 186 pp., $50, hardcover; $20, paper) contains thirteen fine stories, including “Hog Whisperer.” Some of these tales are so lively and dense that it’s difficult to believe they aren’t novels as so much happens in the course of each story. “Hog Whisperer” is one of those stellar stories.

Another one that is rich and full of the intent and accomplishment of a novel is “Pitchblende,” the first in the collection. We are introduced by the narrator to his father, known as “the Colonel,” in the first paragraph. He is a larger-than-life character who intends to run the lives of his entire family. His wife is not up for that, so she departs.

The Colonel was gone during most of that family’s life, serving in various wars around the planet. He disgraced himself—or thought he did—in the Korean War, after which his career was as good as over due to events that were beyond his control. That is often the nature of war. No more promotions were there, so the old man left the military and spent the rest of his life trying to strike it rich finding uranium in the form of pitchblende.

He dug big holes in the ground with his Cat, which was as close to his old Sherman tank as he could get on his property, which becomes known as Bald Mountain because of what he and his Cat do to the surface of the land and to the trees.

My favorite sentence in this story is: “That’s because they ain’t no uranium in Missouri.” Just sticky, old soft coal that’s worthless.

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John Mort

The story’s hero graduated from high school, joined the Army, and learned to fly helicopters.

“I was a warrant officer,” he says. “I was a pilot, and twice I was shot down. Who knows why, but the bullets flew all around me, and I was never touched.”

There’s lots of war in the stories in this fine book, including the Vietnam War. “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him” alone is worth the price of admission.

If you have even the vaguest love of fine short stories or want to read great stories about people and war, buy this book. It will not disappoint.

—David Willson

The Illegal by John Mort

John Mort served as an infantryman, often walking point, with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1969-70. He has written several worthy works out of that war experience, including the novel Soldier in Paradise, which won the W.Y. Boyd Award for best military fiction in 1999.

His latest novel, The Illegal (Southeast Missouri State University, 270 pp., $15, paper), is not directly about the Vietnam War, but there is a vividly portrayed Vietnam veteran in the book, a man named Abraham Potts, “a bald irritable black man bound to a wheelchair,” as Mort describes him.

“I’m a disabled veteran,” the novel’s main character, Mario Oliveros, says. He goes on to say: “Senor Abraham Potts had reason to be angry, but that did not make him wise.”  That is a typical observation from Oliveros, who is always riveting, from the first page until the last. Vietnam veterans are a recurring leitmotif in this novel.

John Mort

Mario Oliveros fully inhabits this book, which often seems less contemporary than post-apocalyptic in tone and content. He is on the run for most of the novel, trying to make it as in illegal in America after being left for dead in the river that separates the United States and Mexico. Through no fault of his own, he is a soldier without a country, dead in Mexico, and not acknowledged to be a person in America.

Our hero battles to find existence and love in the United States, a country that is a mystery to him even though he speaks excellent English and is an educated man. His willingness to do anything to survive, including to wander forty days in the desert wilderness with a toe eaten off by a boar hog, insures that he is not going to fail in America.

His journey shows us the underbelly of the American Dream. And, indeed, sometimes it seems all underbelly. He sleeps under bridges and steals clothes to keep from having to wander naked.

Hogs play a large part in this book, and so does Walmart. In fact, Walmart plays such a large role that the store almost figures as one of the main characters.

Mort does a brilliant job making this book engrossing and often exciting. He is brilliant at creating characters the reader roots for—as well as characters we don’t root for. I was sad when the book ended and I could no longer follow Mario Oliveros’s odyssey.

I’d love to read another novel about him. I wonder how he will do in Canada—yet another mysterious country to figure out. Good luck to him.

—David Willson

 

Don’t Mean Nothin: Vietnam War Stories by John Mort

John Mort served with the First Cavalry Division as a point man and RTO in Vietnam in 1969-70. Five of the dozen stories in his latest book, Don’t Mean Nothin: Vietnam War Stories (Stockton Lake, 246 pp., $11.95, paper) previously appeared in his book TANKS. Three of them appeared in The Walnut King.  No evidence is provided that the two stories, “A Man’s World” or “Where They Have to Take You In,” were previously published. 

I enjoyed all the stories, most of which I’d read in Mort’s earlier books as I’m a big John Mort fan and have been since I encountered TANKS, which was published in 1985. In this collection, I most enjoyed Mort’s Afterword, “My Vietnam,” a twenty-plus page essay all but buried at the end of the book.

The essay starts with a great sentence that I identify with: “I wrote about half of these stories in the mid-1980’s, during a period when my dad died, my marriage ended, and I was hounded out of a job.” As a matter of fact, my father died and a marriage ended then, too. I was not hounded out of my job until 2000. Maybe my skin is thicker than Mort’s. Or maybe the hounds were bigger and had sharper teeth where he was working.

I loved Mort’s stories of that period so much that I tried to locate Mort so I could call him and talk to him about them. I remember finding his work phone number and calling and being told in a snotty tone that he no longer worked there. Sad stuff. But for me, John Mort had attained that tiny sweet spot of publishing a work of excellent Vietnam War fiction.

Mort advises the reader that he pulled together the best of his stories for this volume and carefully revised them, intending to improve them. I dug out my collection of John Mort books (I have them all) and painstakingly made comparisons. It pleases me to say that his stories were great to begin with and they are served up even better in this handsome collection.

The second part of the fascinating “My Vietnam” essay gives the nonfiction background to Mort’s stories. They are dark, powerful stories. Mort wanted to be a writer, which he sees as an explanation for his participation in the Vietnam War.

“It was a bad war,” he says, “but it was the biggest story of my generation.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Note should be taken of Mort’s title. He chooses to pay homage with the title to Susan O’Neill’s classic 2001 collection, Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam, which is based on O’Neill’s tour of duty as an Army nurse. Of course, titles cannot be copyrighted and Mort does remove the final “n” from “nothing” so O’Neill and Mort have slightly different titles.

I enjoyed Mort’s reference to Fort Lewis, the chilly air, and the fun of buying a six pack of Olympia beer in Roy, Washington, near Fort Lewis, to drink with his buddies when he was supposed to be suffering on a night field exercise. That’s how Mort showed his mastery of “escape and evasion.”  He nailed the Pacific Northwest in that story.

Later he says, “it seemed no one cared about us.” He’s right. Those who were cared about (Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, Bill Clinton, et al.) were at home or in Europe. That was no accident. Those of us in Vietnam were cannon fodder to one degree or another. ”It’ll make a man out of you,” I was told by my old Boy Scout Master who had never served in the military.

Mort writes about shit-burning detail, a chore he, “almost grew to like,”  he says. I agree. I liked it for the same reasons he did. You could take your time and nobody pestered you while you stirred the burning excrement. It gave you time to contemplate the Human Condition.

“Vietnam vets were all but criminalized in the public imagination, fed by the media.” Mort says a mouthful here. I remember countless episodes of the TV show “Streets San Francisco,” in which the plots were driven by the pursuit of yet one more crazy Vietnam War veteran, with cops played by Michael Douglas, who was the right age for Vietnam, and his mentor Karl Malden, who was not.

“A Man’s World” is a great story of a woman in Vietnam, a Red Cross worker—Arlene, a pretty girl. That might be my favorite story of the bunch. But it’s hard to pick.

An interesting and compelling undercurrent of religion runs through many of these stories. That undercurrent is expressed most forcefully in “Called of God,” and “Where They Have to Take You In.” These are great, dark stories.

I was pleased that the famed C-rat, ham and limas, got name-checked in this book. Mort’s reference to them made me laugh out loud. His character said they tasted just like a dish his mom used to make. Mine, too. That’s no compliment to my mom.

Mort got “a deep appreciation for simple pleasures” from his time at war.  He’s a wise man, a philosophical one, and a fine short story writer. Buy and read his dozen stories. You’ll be using your time and money wisely.

—David Willson