VVA member John Podlaski served in Vietnam from 1969-71 with the Wolfhounds of the 25th Infantry Division and the 501st Infantry Brigade of the 101st Airborne division. The lead character in Cherries: A Vietnam War Novel (CreateSpace, 456 pp., $16), Podlaski’s fine first novel, is John Kowalski, often called “Polack,” which the character says is preferable to being called “Ski.” This book is fiction, but Podlaski lets us know that “many of the events and anecdotes are based upon actual experiences of the author.”
Early in the book our hero arrives at the 90th Replacement Battalion, Long Binh, the big in-country RePo Depot. This is a very different place in 1970 than it was when I passed through in the summer of 1966. The author’s descriptions are a good reminder that everyone who served in Vietnam had a different war and—even if they served in the same place at the same time. It was, in other words, a different war for everyone.
After some in-country infantry training, John and his best buddy Bill are assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry—the Wolfhounds. They are sent to Firebase Kien.
This is a big book of more than 400 pages. The astonishing wealth of detail that Podlaski martials explains why it is twice as long as most books about one-year tours of duty. Podlaski seems to have an eidetic memory for every sortie and every firefight he was involved in a lifetime ago, and he is brilliant at picking the details that bring those long-ago events alive on the page.
Podlaski is a gifted storyteller. He invests this novel with narrative tension so that the reader is constantly involved in what might happen next. We are introduced to many memorable characters who come alive, even though most of them do not survive the war. When they are killed or horribly mutilated we feel John’s grief and pain.
No space is wasted on poetic or metaphysical fustian and there is no evidence that Podlaski has had a classical education that he feels necessary to foist off as underpinning for his powerful story of an infantryman. This is not a novel about all wars, but a novel about John’s war. It is powerfully evoked.
One carping note, though, from this retired reference librarian. Harry Houdini did not die of drowning, but of a ruptured appendix, and his ghost does not roam anywhere.
Also: John Wayne is name-checked more than once, and we also are treated to lots of familiar Vietnam War fiction territory: friendly fire, “beans and mother fuckers” (a new one on me), a colonel obsessed with body counts, the black clap, shit burning, Agent Orange, Bob Hope, a mother’s concern that her son is killing women and children, fragging, the ARVN being worthless soldiers, Arlo Guthrie, REMFs, black power, free love, and Fort Apache. At least Jane Fonda does not get any mention.
If a reader is looking for one big Vietnam War infantry book to read, I suggest this one unreservedly.