Mel Smith was born in Helena, Montana. He joined the Naval Reserves in 1966 and went on active duty in July 1968. He served on the destroyer U.S.S. Taylor out of Pearl Harbor as a member of the deck force, the tough ship maintenance division. This crew is sometimes referred to as deck apes. He transferred to the U.S.S. De Haven on a West Pacific tour and got an early out in April 1970.
Smith’s novel, Nam: The Story of a Generation (First Steps, 360 pp., $33.64, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $6.99 Kindle), follows the lives of three young men—two Americans and one North Vietnamese, a starry-eyed patriot.
The main character, Mark Cameron, has a best friend named JT, who does not make it. Their counterpoint character, Dat, becomes a general on the other side. Cameron spends his tour of duty in Vietnam in the Brown Water Navy, on a PBR.
His backstory is based on that of the author. The book jumps around chronologically, but the sections are clearly labelled as a kindness to the reader. The book starts in 1948 and 1998, and then leapfrogs back and forth through time to give a full picture of the Vietnam War Generation. The story ends in California, in August 1998.
Mark Cameron intersects with Dat, who had been a North Vietnamese general, and is now a civilian wearing a $600 suit. Dat is now known as Van and owns a string of convenience stores. The encounter is totally friendly and rings true to this reader’s ears.
As is not unusual in such a book, John Wayne’s name pops up more than once. Plus, there is a big stateside scene in which one of the characters returning home from the war is called a baby killer and has eggs tossed at him.
This is one of those rare semi-autobiographical American Vietnam War novels that includes a substantial cast of well drawn and realistically portrayed Vietnamese characters. In one realistic scene among Americans in Vietnam, the main character confronts a c-ration can of ham and limas and is warned off. He winds up being served a ham sandwich instead by a minor character who has access to the mess hall.
I highly recommend this well-written book. It held my attention and more.