Tom Glenn’s The Last of the Annamese (Naval Institute Press, 336 pp., $29.95) is a love story. It is not a sentimental love story, nor is it a soap opera. It is a clear story of the last days of South Vietnam—a story of the love between individuals and love for a dying country.
The main thread is an affair between an American, Chuck Griffith, and an aristocratic Vietnamese woman, Tuyet, who is married to a disfigured peasant who has the noblest heart of all the characters. But the background story is of the Vietnam War after most of American troops have left. It is about Amerasian children left behind in orphanages, Vietnamese women who do not know what has happened to their husbands, the American troops who try to tell the truth of what is happening. Whether the U.S. government cares about the truth is unclear; are the Americans in charge deaf, or do they wish to disrupt any evacuations?
The novel begins calmly with the meeting of the two protagonists and progresses to fear and panic as South Vietnam begins to unravel. It is the mark of a fine writer that you cannot tell how he does this without changing his style, but the message is undeniably clear: South Vietnam is falling and failing, and people are trying to survive.
Against the panic of being overrun, Glenn conveys the peaceful heart and philosophies of one man, the courageous South Vietnamese Army officer who is married to Tuyet. Thanh evolves into the strongest, most compassionate, dauntless character in the book. Against all odds, he comes to embody the heart of the Buddha in a way that suggests that the people in the South will endure and survive whatever horrors await.
Glenn’s writing is clear and calm and remains so throughout the book. And yet, toward the end, as Saigon is being bombed and people are dying, there is an urgency to everything. The calm of the rest of the book reflects the way people ignored what was really going on. When confronted with bombs, attacks, and the advancing enemy, the urgency and human panic comes through loud and clear.
Every character is painted with only a few strokes with such talent that you know these people, or think you do. And yet, none are clichéd or simple. You can smell the fish sauce, the streets, the flowers, the air. You can feel the black smoke from crashing planes, the humidity of the place, the darkness of the interiors, the whisper of silk ao dais.
You can feel the grief of all that is lost, but it is never a grief too heavy to read. In a Shakespearean way, the heavy emotion is off stage, implied with subtle writing. Glenn describes emotions that his characters go through, but he does so with spare strokes and thorough knowledge. Above all, this beautiful book shows that the trauma of war is the great equalizer for those directly involved.
Tom Glenn spent thirteen years as an undercover NSA employee working on covert operations in Vietnam, and escaped when the North Vietnamese took Saigon in May of 1975. We reviewed his novels The Trion Syndrome and Friendly Casualties on these pages in 2015 and 2016.