The World Played Chess (Lake Union Publishing, 400 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $10.pp, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is an important work of Vietnam War fiction even though it’s being marketed as a coming-of-age story (“a young man’s unlikely friendship with a world-weary Vietnam veteran”) to attract more readers. Best-selling author Robert Dugoni did not serve in the military, though he has had a long-time interest in the Vietnam War and its veterans.
Dugoni’s main character, Vincent Bianco, is an attorney with a wife and teenage children. As his son approaches his eighteenth birthday, Vincent thinks back on his life at that same age forty years earlier. His thoughts center on two Vietnam veterans who were on a construction work crew he joined in the summer of 1979 before going off to college.
One of the veterans, William Goodman, who served in the Marine Corps, opens up to Vincent about his wartime experiences as the summer goes on. Goodman kept a journal of his year in Vietnam and, though they’d no contact for decades, he sends it to Vincent because he’s never forgotten that when Vincent would ask him about the war, he would listen attentively. That leads Vincent to dig out a journal that he kept during that summer.
Vincent reminisces about what he learned about the war from Goodman all those years ago and starts reading his Vietnam War journal. He finds the daily entries funny, poignant, sad—and horrible. The novel alternates between Goodman’s 1968 stories and Vincent’s in 1979, and the plot swirls around the stressful year Goodman spent in Vietnam, the lessons he learned, and how those lessons were passed along to a father and his son.
Be prepared for a gut-punch of an ending that takes place at the top of Hill 1338, somewhere in South Vietnam, in which Dugoni searingly sums up America’s experience in the war.
Robert Dugoni writes about the war as if he had been there, though he wasn’t, and that’s not an easy thing to do. In addition to doing a ton of research, a novelist can only pull that off if his or her heart’s in the right place. It’s evident that Dugoni cares about Vietnam War veterans and the unique things that can still be learned from them.
This is the best novel dealing with the Vietnam War and its ongoing legacy I’ve read in a long time.
Dugoni’s website is robertdugonibooks.com