The Lotus and the Storm by Lan Cao

Lan Cao is a professor at the Dale Fowler School of Law at Chapman University and the author of the novel Monkey Bridge. Robert Olen Butler calls her “one of our finest American writers,” saying that her new book, The Lotus and the Storm (Viking, 400 pp., $27.95) is a “brilliant novel that illuminates the human condition shared by us all.”

That is what we should ask from a serious novel—and this is a serious novel. I realized that when I read the quote from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land on the page after the dedication, which begins “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”

Much of the book is set in 2006 in the United States, and deals with how life is for Vietnamese who immigrated here to start new lives after the war. This present-day narrative is set off with large sections set in Saigon in the 1960s.

The author does a superb job summoning up Cholon of the 1966-1967 era. I recognize it and feel nostalgic for the beauty of those narrow, clogged streets that seemed to go nowhere.

The two primary narrators, Minh and Mai, father and daughter, give us much to think about. When Minh says, “And the Americans entered our story not fully knowing what awaited them,” he says a mouthful.

This is typical of the understatement in this fine novel. Most Americans, in fact, didn’t even know that the French had been there, let alone they’d been defeated at Dien Bien Phu. What’s more, they would not have cared if they had been told, as evidenced by the fact that I don’t know how many times I got asked why the Vietnamese spoke French but not much English.

Mai and her older sister have a dear friend, James Baker, a young American sergeant attached to the MP Compound just down the street from where they live in Cholon. He is an enigmatic character who I never figured out, although he is as far from an Ugly American as you can get.  He is golden and pure and teaches the girls American songs and English.  He acts as an English tutor to Mai.

Among the most powerful sections of the book deal are those that deal with Mai and her family home coming under attack by the VC during the 1968 Tet Offensive, James dying nearby, and Mai blaming herself for not saving him, and the section in which Mai goes to the Wall in Washington with her father and makes a rubbing of James Baker’s name. Sad stuff.

Saigon, 1966

The whole book is sad, even though it is filled with joyful descriptions of great meals of delicious Vietnamese food. As soon as possible I will make a pilgrimage to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Fortune Noodle House, and order a big bowl of pho with beef brisket. I once ate a dish of frogs legs in garlic sauce, and it brought me back to the time I had consumed such a dish in a small restaurant in Saigon.Dealing with all the tiny sharp bones reminded me of why it has been over forty years since I ordered that dish.

The ubiquitous Vietnamese restaurants in King County, Washington, demonstrate that this novel of the Vietnamese diaspora is totally valid. We as a country are much enriched by the Vietnamese presence. The question remains: Was the war worth it?

This fine novel is filled with tiny sharp bones, too—many small, painful memories that hurt and remind us of how we mishandled the war and how the Vietnamese on both sides suffered, and that there is no wall large enough to memorialize all the deaths.

Read The Lotus and the Storm if you wish to encounter—and perhaps better understand—the trauma and suffering of the Vietnamese during and after that long and bitter war. The main character, Minh, was an ARVN general, and his point of view is perfectly presented.

I’d like all American Vietnam veterans who castigate ARVN soldiers to read this book and try to eradicate their hatred of the ARVN soldiers and try to understand the position they were in, and how totally the United States had been the architects of that situation.

I highly recommend that all Vietnam veterans buy and read this fine book.  Try it; you might learn something.

—David Willson

The Gunny, Master Guns, and Bullets and Bandages by Raymond Hunter Pyle

Raymond Hunter Pyle is a two-tour Vietnam veteran who served in Da Nang, Cua Viet, and Dong Ha in 1967 and in Da Nang from 1968-69. I suspect he was a Marine Corps NCO, perhaps a gunnery sergeant who did a lot of recon. Those suspicions are based on the extreme realism and wealth of believable detail that Pyle displays in these three fine and rousing action adventure tales of a Marine Corps NCO.

What are my qualifications for reviewing Pyle’s Marine Corps novels, all of which take place in the thick of battle and often deep in the jungle of Vietnam—all three of which I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend, with a few misgivings? I was not a Marine, and I never wanted to be a Marine, but my father was. He was a normal guy before he served in protracted combat in the World War II. For the rest of his life he was a bitter, difficult man who never talked about his war experiences.

To try to reach some understanding of why my father was the way he was, I have read hundreds of Marine Corps books, starting with his unit history. This was an enriching experience, but having a father who was present and communicative would have been much preferable.

Pyle is a great storyteller, and he presents us with flesh-and-blood characters we care about and get completely involved with. I would rank him right up there with Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs, two of my favorite action/adventure novelists. Long sections of The Gunny CreateSpace, 448 pp., $13.70, paper; $3.99, Kindle), in fact, in which the title character is alone in the jungle hunting the enemy with a knife reminded me vividly of similar scenes in a Tarzan novel in which the “King of the Jungle” killed Nazis with a knife.

Pyle’s scenes were every bit as thrilling and exciting as those of Burroughs’ Tarzan. That is high praise.

However, Pyle has not had the benefit of the editors that Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs had. The Gunny is the best edited by far of the three books. But even that book suffers from anachronistic rants such as: “During bull sessions between attacks, the Marines on the hill had talked about the hippies in California and how they would spit on military men coming back home from Vietnam and call them baby killers and worse.” That simply did not happen in 1967-68.

The other two books suffer from frequent dropped capital letters, missing prepositions, and erratic spelling. Pyle, for example, uses the term “nuke mom” for the common fish sauce (nuoc mam) of Vietnam. 

The Gunny also tests credibility with the meteoric rise to Gunnery Sergeant of Frank Evans, due to his saving the life of a Marine Corps general who demonstrates his gratitude by becoming Frank’s rabbi.  One of the most absorbing parts of the book is the lengthy section in which Frank is assigned to Khe Sanh to investigate the malfunctions of the M-16 for the general.  Pyle gets all of this right, and makes it interesting as well.

It’s mostly action with the occasional bit of reflection, such as: “Every man has a dark, violent spirit inside of him.”  Certainly Sgt. Frank Evans does.

Master Guns (376 pp., $3.99, Kindle) is a Marine recon novel and a fine one. Everything you ever yearned to know about Marine recon is in this novel and it all moves right along.

Rhodes, the main character, also rises rapidly in the Marine Corps. He makes the sudden jump from NCO to captain. I know a friend who managed to do that in the Marine Corps, so while it can be done, it is unlikely, but possible. The novel makes clear that the role of recon is to develop intelligence on terrain, enemy movements and numbers, and finding potential LZ’s for future operations, but there is no shortage of actual battle.

We get a long and educational disquisition on where the term “klick’ comes from as a measure of distance. There is also a great scene in which an artillery strike is called in on the Marines’ own position. We find out exactly why the 9th Marines were called “The Walking Dead.”

At Khe Sanh, the Marines were sitting ducks in a muddy pond, being hit with long-range artillery, mortars of all sizes, recoil-less rifles, 122 MM, 140 mm, and 155 mm rockets and even RPG’s fired by sappers just on the other side of the wire.

In Bullets and Bandages: A DMZ Story: Vietnam 1967 (BookBaby, 302 pp., $3.99, Kindle), two main characters’ lives are entwined by marriage, family ,and career: Staff Sergeant Marowski and Terry King, a Squid and a Navy Corpsman.

Marowski and King survive for weeks in the jungle near the DMZ after surviving a helicopter crash, evading the enemy, and undergoing just about every bad thing that can happen to someone in a jungle.

Pyle is a spell-binding teller of tales and he really knows the lives of Marine Corps professionals, and he has the writerly gifts to hold the attention of the reader.

The author avoids right-wing rants until the very end of the book. Vietnam veterans returned to a country, Pyle writes, “that didn’t care much about the war or its returning veterans.” The country “was mired in its own selfish and self-centered politics and social problems. The age of the spoiled brat society had begun.”

Pyle tells us that Marowski and King, “like thousands of others, got on with their lives and tried to make sense of it all. Few ever did.” That point is debatable, at best.

Based on my reading of many hundreds of Marine Corps books, I believe that some Vietnam veteran authors seem to feel sorry for themselves in a way that the authors of the World War II and Korean War Marine Corps books did not. Maybe that has something to do with Pyle’s reference to a “spoiled-brat society.”

I’m looking forward to Pyle’s fourth book in this series. I hope it will have a stern editor who will keep the faith on proper English punctuation and keep the rants out. Suggestion: Pyle could put his rants on a blog aimed at those who need them.

—David Willson