The First Door is the Final Exit by Timothy Kenneth O’Neil

The First Door is the Final Exit (235 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $13.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is the debut novel by Timothy Kenneth O’Neil. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Tim O’Neil spent the entire year of 1969 in South Vietnam. He was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, the Wolfhounds, and dedicates the book to “the men that died and the women who tragically suffered.” 

The novel has a tri-part structure. The plot follows Winson, the book’s protagonist, Winston, a 25th Division grunt, and his squad through their year in South Vietnam. Their in-country experiences are intertwined with those of Winston’s girlfriend Veronica, who is in nursing school back home. Occasionally O’Neil throws in current events to remind the reader what was happening on the home front.

Winston is an all-American boy. As soon as he graduates from college, he is drafted. He is a reluctant warrior, but not a troublemaker. He gets through his tour of duty by reminding himself that it’s just one year and then he can start his real life back home with Veronica. 

He goes to Nam as naïve as most cherries. He is put into a heterogeneous squad whose “complexion was the opposite of those who created the war.” Winston fits in immediately and befriends a like-minded guy named Rufus. They share a love of weed; in fact, the platoon has a reputation for being a unit of heads. 

Between bull sessions and toking, the squad is sent on missions typical of the war in 1969. The first is to the Michelin Rubber Plantation where they search a few abandoned huts and then return. They wonder why they had to wade through a leech-infested swamp just to be picked up on the other side.  

Questioning the war, in fact, is a theme of the book, but the novel is more anti-tactics than antiwar. The squad goes through a variety of leaders, ranging from the gung-ho to the cautious. The grunts are seldom told why they are doing things that can and do get them killed. 

Meanwhile, Veronica is waiting for the return of her man. Her chats with her friends parallel Winston’s with his buddies. For drama, she is being stalked by a Casanova.

There are countless good memoirs about the war. O’Neil takes that genre and fictionalizes it into a story of a grunt’s tour, adding a girlfriend back home to give a taste of how the war affected women and their boyfriends in Vietnam. And he throws in snippets of 1969 events showing the country going through some seismic social and political shifts.

U.S. infantrymen in the Michelin Rubber Plantation

The main focus, though, is on Winston and his squad. The characters are well-developed and each has a distinct personality. The book has a lot of dialogue, all well-written, and the jargon is appropriate for grunts. O’Neil enhances the story with grammatical flourishes. He is creative with his similes, such as describing the plane Winston arrived in county on as being like a womb. One distracting element is that the book could have used better editing.

If you haven’t read any Vietnam War memoirs, you might want to try this novel centered on a soldier counting down the days to the Freedom Bird. The First Door is the Final Exit is a realistic tale of a typical grunt and his comrades. Although the combat scenes are visceral, O’Neil avoids the temptation to give his readers combat porn. Winston is no Rambo. He is just trying to survive, a theme of the book.

Another theme is that squad members are pawns at the mercy of higher ups whose goals are the almighty body count and the “glory count” of dead GIs. Overall, the novel rings true as far as putting the reader in the boots of an American soldier in South Vietnam in 1969.   

O’Neil’s website is tkomynovels.com

–Kevin Hardy