The hero of Roger Rooney’s novel True North (Volcano Mountain, 296 pp., $19.95, paper; $0.99, Kindle), Jack Burns, is one of the few Australians serving in the Vietnam War in the early 1960s. As much as he hopes it will provide him some distinction, Burns’ path seems destined for disappointment. Or worse.
Burns arrives in country with energy and ambition. But there’s heat and chaos and the frustration of working as an adviser in a place where advice is the last thing anyone wants to hear.
Rooney tells of Burns’ growing disenchantment with the war, along with the story of a young North Vietnamese woman who is with a detachment of NVA troops heading south to make war on the Americans. She, too, is disenchanted. Readers will wonder whether their paths will cross.
Burns wants to remain optimistic, but he cannot escape the conflicting directives of the war. The ARVN’s track record suggests that its objective is not winning the war, but preventing another next coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s American-backed leader. Before being installed as Prime Minister, Diem was a religious mystic in Bruges, Belgium. His only qualification for the job was his staunchly anti-communist views.
Burns isn’t on the ground long before someone sets him straight: The apparent truth he sees isn’t real.
“Charlie owns the night and has damn near paid off his mortgage on the day,” Rooney writes. “That little man is on the march straight to this very room. He’d be here in a few days if it wasn’t for our airstrikes and choppers. The South Vietnamese don’t go on search and destroy missions. They go on search and avoid missions.”
Nevertheless, Burns is eager to get to the front. Too soon, he gets his wish.
As Ryan “launched himself into the water, he saw a yellow fireball explode and flames suck high into the air and spray burning jelly across the paddies,” Rooney writes. “He gulped down a huge breath as small tornadoes whipped amongst the rice stalks, caught in the rising heat like satanic spears intent on puncturing the heavens. He hurled himself into the water, grabbing frantically for a fistful of rice stalks. His only hope was to anchor himself as deep as possible underwater.”
Later, as the battle rages on and monkeys shriek in the branches above, the young NVA woman is captured. She will try to warn Burns away from a booby trap. But it’s too late.
Burns is badly wounded. He’ll land in the hospital and, from there, descend into a hell of opium and despair. We are left wondering, and perhaps hoping, that we’ve seen a glimpse of a connection that may yet take place.
Both he and the young woman, Tran, are characters we care about. Rooney’s development of their stories is smart and well-told. There are taut, wonderfully descriptive passages that carry us through to an ending that is as hard and desperate as the war itself.
Readers will forgive occasional inconsistencies in the writing, although there are a disconcerting number of typographical errors in the book. Nevertheless, True North is well worth a read.
Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue.