The Last of the Annamese by Tom Glenn

 

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Tom Glenn’s The Last of the Annamese (Naval Institute Press, 336 pp., $29.95) is a love story. It is not a sentimental love story, nor is it a soap opera. It is a clear story of the last days of South Vietnam—a story of the love between individuals and love for a dying country.

The main thread is an affair between an American, Chuck Griffith, and an aristocratic Vietnamese woman, Tuyet, who is married to a disfigured peasant who has the noblest heart of all the characters. But the background story is of the Vietnam War after most of American troops have left. It is about Amerasian children left behind in orphanages, Vietnamese women who do not know what has happened to their husbands, the American troops who try to tell the truth of what is happening. Whether the U.S. government cares about the truth is unclear; are the Americans in charge deaf, or do they wish to disrupt any evacuations?

The novel begins calmly with the meeting of the two protagonists and progresses to fear and panic as South Vietnam begins to unravel. It is the mark of a fine writer that you cannot tell how he does this without changing his style, but the message is undeniably clear: South Vietnam is falling and failing, and people are trying to survive.

Against the panic of being overrun, Glenn conveys the peaceful heart and philosophies of one man, the courageous South Vietnamese Army officer who is married to Tuyet. Thanh evolves into the strongest, most compassionate, dauntless character in the book. Against all odds, he comes to embody the heart of the Buddha in a way that suggests that the people in the South will endure and survive whatever horrors await.

Glenn’s writing is clear and calm and remains so throughout the book. And yet, toward the end, as Saigon is being bombed and people are dying, there is an urgency to everything. The calm of the rest of the book reflects the way people ignored what was really going on. When confronted with bombs, attacks, and the advancing enemy, the urgency and human panic comes through loud and clear.

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Tom Glenn

Every character is painted with only a few strokes with such talent that you know these people, or think you do. And yet, none are clichéd or simple. You can smell the fish sauce, the streets, the flowers, the air. You can feel the black smoke from crashing planes, the humidity of the place, the darkness of the interiors, the whisper of silk ao dais.

You can feel the grief of all that is lost, but it is never a grief too heavy to read. In a Shakespearean way, the heavy emotion is off stage, implied with subtle writing. Glenn describes emotions that his characters go through, but he does so with spare strokes and thorough knowledge. Above all, this beautiful book shows that the trauma of war is the great equalizer for those directly involved.

Tom Glenn spent thirteen years as an undercover NSA employee working on covert operations in Vietnam, and escaped when the North Vietnamese took Saigon in May of 1975.  We reviewed his novels The Trion Syndrome and Friendly Casualties on these pages in 2015 and 2016.

—Loana Hoylman

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The Trion Syndrome by Tom Glenn

 

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Tom Glenn spent thirteen years shuttling between the U. S. and Vietnam as an undercover NSA employee working on covert signals intelligence assignments before being rescued under fire when the North Vietnamese took Saigon in May of 1975.  We reviewed his book, Friendly Casualties, a Vietnam War novel-in-stories, on these pages last year.

The Trion Syndrome (Apprentice House, 306 pp., $15.99, paper) is dedicated to “all combatants who suffered damage to their souls while serving this country.” Glenn describes the book as “at once a domestic novel of marital infidelity, angsty teen-agers, and job strife, and a disturbing psychological study of long-held and barely repressed trauma.”  A close reading of the novel justifies that claim.

The protagonist, Dave Bell, shares many similarities with the author. He’s a Thomas Mann scholar who has returned from Vietnam, and is tormented by nightly dreams. He’s functioning, but damaged. He was changed in Vietnam, and not in a good way.

This novel is written in an experimental style, which involves switching from first person to third person when the author deems it necessary. The book is a beautifully written and edited literary novel.  Readers will do better with it, though, if they have read and understood the novels of Thomas Mann and have taken a few years of German. I’ve done those things and I still found the novel a struggle.

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Tom Glenn

Here’s a brief quote illustrating the challenges in this novel: “He recognized Harry’s writing style—his use of ‘in order to’ and the past progressive and his tendency to string present participle clauses at the end of sentences.”

This sort of stuff can be fun for a Thomas Mann expert, but for normal mortals, not so much. The book does connect with the Vietnam War, to an illusive incident in Long Dinh, but most Vietnam veterans readers will find this book a difficult puzzle.

I recommend it only to die-hard Mann fans.

The author’s website is the-trion-syndrome.com

—David Willson

Friendly Casualties by Tom Glenn

Friendly Casualties: A Novel in Stories (Glenn Publishing, 171 pp., $3.95, Kindle), author Tom Glenn says, is the result of “the many years I spent in Vietnam during the war. Nearly all the characters are based on people I knew, many of them killed by the Vietnamese communists.”

Glenn tells us nothing about what he did in Vietnam, so I did some digging. I found out that he has published a novel called No-Accounts, and that he writes reviews for the on-line Washington Independent Review of Books. His bio on the review website says:

“Tom Glenn has worked as an undercover agent, a musician, a linguist (seven languages), a cryptologist, a government executive, a caregiver for the dying and always a writer. Many of his prize-winning stories came from the 13 years he shuttled between the U. S. and Vietnam on covert signals intelligence assignments before being rescued under fire when Saigon fell.”

The first section of Friendly Casualties contains some bitter father stories, including one about a divorced dad alienated from his son. It is set in April 1976. There is high drama in the story, and a kind word for the VA; to wit: “The VA’s counseling had helped.” On the other hand, the conclusion indicates that the counseling had not helped much.

The second part of this book is composed of linked stories with characters that are well-developed and with whom the reader becomes sympathetic.  The three main characters are in-country for most of this section. The author brings alive the environment of the U. S. Embassy in Saigon where much of the story takes place. Maggie, an analyst, is responsible for the Central Highlands in II Corps. The machinations between Maggie, her boss, and the ambassador resonate with authenticity.

Glenn does an equally good job with the other two main characters in this section: Captain Rick Diaz, an adviser with the ARVN, and Thiep, an officer in the ARVN 29th Battalion. Many good things are said about Thiep, who becomes like a brother to Diaz. There also are good things said about the ARVN troops, which was refreshing.

Tom Glenn

Maggie is an excellent analyst. She forecasts the 1968 Tet Offensive, but no one will listen to her. As a result, many die. The dead include Rick and Thiep.

Rick’s thoughts on combat make this not the tragedy it seems.  “Combat,” Glenn writes. “Rick pitied the man who had never known the perfect moment when men fought each other to the death.”

This is a worthy collection and I recommend it. There were, however, some clinkers in it—at least to these ears. One was the word “nug,” which I’d never encountered. We are told that a nug is a new girt. Then we are told that a girt is a GI Rat Bastard. Where did this stuff come from?

I also was troubled by a reference to a Vietnam War era mess kit containing metal plates. I must have missed this, too. Anyone who can enlighten me about this stuff, please contact me.

The author’s website is http://friendly-casualties.org

—David Willson