Vietnam Warrior Voices by Mark Masse

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Mark Masse is a professor of literary journalism at Ball State University. His new book, Vietnam Warrior Voices, Life StoriesCaputo,  Del Vecchio, Butler, O’Brien (Mark Henry Masse, 94 pp., $5.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is a work of literary journalism. It is based on a series of interviews Masse did with the four “warrior voices” of the subtitle.

In about seventy pages of text, Masse gives the reader the pith of what these writers have tried to accomplish in their books.  He gives the impression that all four have been tormented, angry souls at some time in their lives. Maybe that is a characteristic of most authors who write books that deal with war. War is not a happy subject.

I got a good sense of what these men have accomplished in their lives and in their writing careers. Plus, this book would have motivated me to read their books—if I had not already read all of them. I am motivated to reread John Del Vecchio’s novel, The Thirteenth Valley, as I didn’t much like it the first time I read it a long time ago.

If I were still teaching a Vietnam War literature course, I would use this book as an introductory text. It would work well for that purpose.

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Mark Masse

I’ve met Bob Butler and Tim O’Brien, and my impression of them and of their work is about the same as Masse’s. So I figure that the portraits he draws of the other two, Del Vecchio and Philip Caputo, are equally accurate.

I find myself asking why I’ve not met Caputo or Del Vecchio. I don’t know; maybe I lacked the motivation. Certainly both of them have been out on the road giving talks and signing books—the purgatory of authors who wish to sell books.

I suggest buying and reading at least one book by each of these guys—they are worth that much effort.  They have all worked hard at their craft and have achieved some notice, even as fame and fortune have—by and large—eluded them.

The author’s website is markmasse.com

—David Willson

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

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Back in 1987, I moderated a panel discussion with four accomplished writers at Vietnam Veterans of America’s National Convention in Washington, D.C. The topic was the Vietnam War Novel. The panelists were Robert Olen Butler, Philip Caputo, Larry Heinemann, and Tim O’Brien. Their books included Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain; Caputo’s classic war memoir, A Rumor of War; Heinemann’s National Book Award-winning novel, Paco’s Story; and O’Brien’s National Book Award winner, Going After Cacciato.

All of the men served in the Vietnam War. All wrote memorable works of fiction, including novels that dealt with that war and its veterans. One of my first questions, then, was: “Do you think of yourselves as Vietnam War novelists?” I remember Butler’s answer word for word.

“Calling us Vietnam War writers,” he said, “is like calling Monet a lily pad painter.”

I’ve thought about Butler’s remark many times in the decades that have passed as I have read and reviewed scores of war novels, virtually all of them written by Vietnam veterans about the Vietnam War. But only now, in 2013, after reading Ben Fountain’s astonishing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—which was published in 2012 and is just out in paperback (Ecco, 307 pp., $14.99)—has the full import of Butler’s remark become clear in my brain.

Fountain’s book is “Iraq War novel,” or at least deals with the war on every page. That’s why I put it way down on my to-read list. I didn’t feel like wading through another war novel, especially one dealing with a war I had no knowledge of, nor much interest in. What I didn’t realize until I started the book is that calling Billy Lynn an “Iraq War novel” is like calling Moby Dick a whaling novel. Yes, Fountain’s book is about a war and its warriors, but it’s much, much more than that—it creates a unique world that illuminates life’s biggest questions through creative storytelling.

Fountain’s story zeroes in on 19-year-old Billy Lynn and his squad of infantrymen who performed a supremely heroic deed in Iraq that a TV crew caught on video. The video goes viral, the men are acclaimed as heroes, and brought home on a kind of good-will tour that culminates on a cold, rainy Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, the former home of the Dallas Cowboys. There, deep in the heart of Texas, Billy and the other men of Bravo squad will be honored and feted before, during, and after the game, but especially at a special, super-patriotic halftime show.

Fountain got me on the first line and never let up: “The men of Bravo are not cold. It’s a chilly and wind whipped Thanksgiving Day with sleet and freezing rain forecast for late afternoon, but Bravo is nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes thanks to the epic crawl of game-day traffic and the limo’s minibar.”

He carries this muscular, lyrical, and insightful writing right on through to the end of the book. The characters are sharply and believably drawn. The clever and twisting plot moves along rapidly to a suspenseful climax. There is plenty of humor, a lot of it dark. And there’s the ever-nagging, Catch-22-like existential dread hovering over the entire story as Billy and the guys contemplate going from their surreal celeb status in Dallas back into the grit and horror of the war in Iraq.

Ben Fountain

Fountain—who did not serve a day in the military—somehow nails the essence of his young soldiers. What Billy and the guys do and say is just about pitch perfect. Fountain gets today’s military men. He also evokes the zeitgeist of other fighting men in other shooting wars. In Fountain’s characters I saw echoes of myself and scores of other Vietnam veterans. And I’m sure a veteran of the Korean War or World War II would say the same thing.

The Vietnam War gets several brief mentions in the novel. It comes up when the Bravos banter with the Hollywood producer who is trying to get them a movie deal. When they jokingly invite him to come back to Iraq with them, he says, “I’d just get in the way…, plus I’m pretty much your classic pacifist twerp. Listen, the only reason I went to law school was to stay out of Vietnam, and lemme tell you guys, if my deferment hadn’t come through, I would’ve been on the bus for Canada.”

To which one of the Bravos says, “It was the sixties.”

“It was the sixties, exactly,” the producer replies, “all we wanted to do was to smoke a lot of dope and ball a lot of chicks. Vietnam, excuse me? Why would I wanna go get my ass shot off in some stinking rice paddy just so Nixon can have his four more years? Screw that, I’m not the only one who felt that way.

“All the big warmongers these days who took a pass on Vietnam—look, I’d be the last person on earth to start casting blame. Bush, Cheney, Rove, all those guys, they just did what everybody else was doing and I was right there with ’em, chicken as anybody. My problem now is how tough and gung-ho they are, all that bring-it-on crap, I mean, Jesus, show a little humility, people. They ought to be just as careful of your young lives as they were with their own.”

Ben Fountain has created a masterpiece of a novel that evokes what war does to those who take part in it.

—Marc Leepson

The hardcover