Sweden by Matthew Turner

 

sweden_march_final

Lance Cpl. James Earle Harper, an African American from Mississippi, is badly wounded at Khe Sanh saving the life of his lieutenant. In the Cam Ranh Bay hospital, just before Christmas 1967, he is visited by—not Santa—but by President Johnson, who pins a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to his hospital gown.

Harper is central to Sweden (The Mantle, 327 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.95, Kindle), Matthew Turner’s first novel. In the 1990s, Turner, a New Zealander, was living in Japan, working as a freelance translator, he said in an article on his publisher’s website. That’s when he learned of a late-1960s group called the Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to Anti-War U.S. Deserters (JATEC), the underground arm of Beheiren, the Citizens’ Federation for Peace in Vietnam.

The desertion rate for the Vietnam War peaked “at 73.5 per 1,000 troops in 1971, well above the highest figures from World War II (63 per 1,000 troops in 1944) and the Korean War (22.3 per 1,000 in 1953),” Turner writes in a historical note. JATEC’s role in helping Vietnam War deserters was a small but fascinating one.

Turner started writing this novel in 2010. “[M]ost of the primary sources I relied on in researching Sweden were written in Japanese by people involved with the group,” he said. Another important source was Terry Whitmore’s 1971 memoir ,Memphis, Nam, Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter.

Whitmore was the model for Earle Harper, who, after his encounter with LBJ, is flown to Japan for rehab at a U.S. military hospital. He’s told his next stop probably will be the States. Instead, he is ordered back to Vietnam and a war he no longer believes in. So he deserts.

author_photo_3_1

Matthew Turner

So does another character, Eddie Flynn, a seaman apprentice on a U.S. hospital ship, after gruesome chores with the triage unit and in the morgue led to spells in the brig and drug addiction. Flynn spends one month as a patient in the naval mental health unit in Yokosuka. Pronounced fit for return to duty, he simply walks away.

In alternating chapters, Turner tells Flynn’s story, and Harper’s, and that of a rowdy trio of teenagers. He also shares absorbing details on Japan’s past, geography, religion, culture, and cuisine; recreates several days of a violent student strike at Nihon University; and portrays life at a hippie commune, a way station for American deserters.

The narrative keeps moving, thanks to Turner’s efficient prose, as well as an attractive supporting cast. The Beat poet Gary Snyder shows up at a Buddhist temple. And JATEC operatives—the jazz enthusiast Masuda among them—show resourcefulness in guiding the deserters on their individual perilous journeys.

There’s no guarantee of reaching the country’s far north, embarkation point for the next leg of the escape.

–Angus Paul

Advertisements

The Last Red-Line Brig  by Peter Carini

9781786292988

Peter Carini’s The Last Red-Line Brig (Austin Macauley, 320 pp., $25.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $4.41, Kindle) is a work of fiction that is based on a true story. Carini is a short story writer and English teacher in the San Francisco Bay area.

His novel’s hero, Joe Carini, is a youthful renegade, independent thinker, compassionate husband, and a corpsman in the U.S. Navy near the beginning of the Vietnam War. Never an ambitious man, but tended to do an honest day’s work while daydreaming. He had no interest in war or in learning military discipline.

He ends up in the Navy, assigned to a place known as the “red-line brig” among “hardened, unaccommodating Marines and even less friendly inmates.” The brig’s toughest area is called “dimrats,” and it is nothing short of a nauseating torture chamber.

Joe Carini struggles to conform to the standards of his assignment, but pisses off the Marines and his superior officers at every opportunity. This puts him in frequent danger of becoming an inmate in dimrats himself.

peter_carini

Peter Carini

The characters in this book have the sort of nicknames those of us who have read a lot of Vietnam War novels have become accustomed to:  Pvt. Unibrow, Sgt. Serious, and No Neck.

If you read this book attentively, you will learn the duties of an assignment to a Red-Line Brig, and books that treat military jobs seriously and thoroughly are rare. That makes this one a valuable resource for military scholars and students of incarceration during the Vietnam War.

I found the novel engrossing and hard to put down. It is well edited and well written and tells a good story. Agent Orange is mentioned in one paragraph and the long-term consequences of exposure to that dangerous toxin are emphasized.

Novels of wartime military incarceration are rare. This is one of the very best.

I highly recommend it.

—David Willson

Best We Forget by Bernard Clancy

For much of Bernard Clancy’s novel, Best We Forget (Indra, 420 pp., $16.50, paperback; $7.99, Kindle), we are locked inside the head of a young Australian serviceman, Donkey Simpson, where we are never far from what Clancy calls “a slice of madness.”

Donkey Simpson is stationed in Saigon for a year. He spends much of that time swimming in beer, hoping and praying to survive. But it’s not just his life Simpson wants to retain. It’s his sanity, his sense of order and, perhaps, his patriotism.

It isn’t long before the wide-eyed Simpson comes to realize there is no order here, only chaos. As for the mission, it changes from day to day, depending on who’s giving the orders and what mood they’re in.

There is occasional violence and a backdrop of intrigue. But mostly there is gnawing heat and relentless boredom. Simpson struggles to pass the time and lusts for a young Asian woman who turns out to be a spy. Given what he will learn about the lives of the “nogs,” as he calls them, Simpson is torn between a sense of sympathy and one of betrayal.

So he swings between caring and hatred—for her and for all the faces he passes on the street. The solution: bar girls, beer and—when he can find it—air conditioning.

Best We Forget is fiction. But the author, who served in Vietnam in 1968-69, paints a realistic picture of the desolation of the country, the lack of clarity in the mission, and the uncertainty of the allies’ commitment.

Truth and clear-headedness often comes—not from the leadership—but from privates and corporals, as we see in an early exchange between two young soldiers talking about the Tet Offensive.

That will never happen again, one says. “Don’t bet on it,” comes the reply. “Charlie’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

After months of duty, Simpson begins to wear down.

“He began going out more often, drinking more,” Clancy writes. “He even began buying Saigon teas for bar girls, anything to relieve the boredom, to escape the crushing reality of what, like so many before and around him, he was beginning to see as a complete and utterly pointless exercise. Worse, he felt chained into a madness which suffocated and choked. And the more he squirmed, the tighter the chains twisted.”

about_bernard_clancy_author_playwright_journalistelement95

Clancy

Clancy paints a vivid picture of life in Saigon.

“As Matthews weaved the Land Rover through millions of motor scooters and motorbikes, pushbikes and the clapped-out relics of French cars, he saw a huge, filthy, stinking slum. People wandered listlessly among roadside huts made from cardboard boxes and slabs of American beer-can stamped sheet metal; rubbish, filth, refuse, everything just dumped everywhere. Buildings, filthy, old, dilapidated, falling to pieces.

“The stench almost turned Donkey’s stomach inside out. Exhaust smoke from the motorbikes blued the air. And God it was hot.”

 

Clancy is at his best when he shows us what he’s seen. For that reason, some readers might wish for a bit more description and a bit less escapism.

The author’s website is bernardclancy.net

—Mike Ludden

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

Nightmare by Robert E. Ford, Jr.

31hwtffapyl

Robert Ford served in Army Intelligence in the Vietnam War. He’s another in a long line of American boys who enlisted in the Army to avoid serving in the infantry. Ford figured that if he got drafted, carrying a rifle would have been his fate. He deployed to Vietnam in April 1969 and volunteered to extend his term to serve a second tour.  Ford’s novel, Nightmare (Dorrance, 178 pp. $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his real-life experiences.

Nightmare is the story of Army Staff Sgt. Jack Butler, who undertakes a dangerous mission into Viet Cong-controlled territory. Aside from the enemy, he must put up with “an inexperienced ‘cherry’ lieutenant” who always knows best because he’s a lieutenant and everyone else is enlisted scum.

I’ve read other infantry novels featuring green lieutenants who have instincts to do everything wrong,  such as insisting on being saluted in “Indian Country,” even though that makes them a prime target, and crossing rice paddies because the land is open and looks totally harmless. This LT places himself and everyone else at risk, which leads to his men considering the option of fragging him.

The novel is barely half over and this stupid lieutenant gets cut in half just above the waist by “a previously unseen machine gun.” At that point all of the conflict drains out of the book with the LT dead and gone.

I missed him terribly. I wished he or a substitute would have returned to give the novel some piss and vinegar. Didn’t happen.

Later in the book, Ford, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has returning veterans getting spat upon in San Francisco—not just once, but five times. Ham and motherfuckers get star billing in this little book and REMF’s get the usual attention.

111111111111111111111111111

Robert Ford, Then & Now

The novel centers on a Quick Reaction Force unit. Gen. Westmoreland ordered each unit in III Corps to create, train, and maintain a QRF for the direct defense of the Saigon area.

“One such platoon of rear echelon, clerks and jerks, was headquartered in a compound in the Saigon suburb of Gia Dinh,” Ford says in the book’s Prologue.

The book moves right along and has a useful glossary. It’s good that there is a novel dealing with a QRF. It’s the first I’ve stumbled upon.

–David Willson

To Any Soldier by G.C. Hendricks & Kathryn Watson Quigg

51vtj2ttzrl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Any nineteen-year-old woman who can think and write like the character Ashley Beth Justice in To Any Soldier: A Novel of Vietnam Letters (iUniverse, 259 pp.; $17.95, paper; $5.99,Kindle) should have been scooped up and cherished for a lifetime.

Her letters comprise half of the book, which begins with one addressed “To Any Soldier” in Vietnam. She is in her first year of college. Lt. Jay Fox plucks her letter off his squadron’s bulletin board at Da Nang and answers it.

A Marine Corps A-6 pilot, Fox intellectually trails a step behind Ashley. Of course, bombing “Northern Gooks” (as he calls the enemy) and avoiding ground fire consume most of his attention. Ashley and Jay exchange letters throughout 1968.

The two fictitious characters evolved through a collaboration between co-authors Kathryn Watson Quigg and G.C. Hendricks. Back in the day, the authors filled roles similar to those of their fictional characters: Quigg attended college and Hendricks flew more than two hundred combat missions. The book includes lots of pictures of them and their surroundings at that time.

The letters exchanged between Ashley and Jay deal with subjects that stretch from war, destruction, and death to love, creation, and life. Despite the physical distance and opposing views they had on many topics of the era, the two fell in love. But that’s not how the story ends.

I enjoyed the book because Ashley and Jay address controversial arguments in a rational manner. With time to reflect between letters, their discussions lead them to learn from each other.

The authors’ backgrounds give the romance authenticity with which many veterans might easily agree.

They hit home with me.

—Henry Zeybel

A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington

51immcsbjjl-_sx320_bo1204203200_

Laura Harrington has written dozens of plays, musicals, and operas, as well as Alice Bliss, a novel that deals with the Iraq War. Her new book, A Catalog of Birds (Europa Editions, 224 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is set in 1970 when Billy Flynn returns home from his tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot who had been shot down and very badly burned.

The only survivor of that helicopter crash, Billy returns to his family in upstate New York where his adoring kid sister tries valiantly to help him regain the use of his right hand and arm. Billy had been a brilliant artist, drawing birds with a pencil he can’t even hold with his crippled right hand.

This is one of those tragedy-of-war books that has tears on every page and no easy answers or miracles for Billy Flynn or his sister. There is also a mystery: Billy’s pre-war girlfriend disappears and is never heard from again.

The VA hospital where Billy receives inadequate care is rat-infested and his care givers are skeptical that anything serious is wrong with him. They all but accuse him of faking his injury. Plus, the VA only pays for half of Billy’s rehab; his parents go bankrupt trying to pay for the other half.

What’s more, Billy and his best friend Harlow are treated by people outside the VA as though they are baby killers and monsters. They spend a lot of time drinking away their time and pain.

There is a big discussion about chemicals that the Army used in Vietnam. “There are plenty of vets who can’t smell or taste.” Billy says to his father. “Most everybody has hearing loss. More and more cancers are showing up. The VA says they are slacking off, looking to stay on the dole. Twelve million tons of Agent Orange, Dad. As if the Geneva Convention against chemical warfare did not exist. Think of what we have done, what we are leaving behind.”

514kckvhoil-_ux250_

Laura Harrington

This is as bleak a novel about the Vietnam War as I’ve read. Nothing turns out well for anyone. No good comes out of the war either. Harrington—who teaches play writing at MIT—and I see eye to eye about that.

Those who see the war as having done a lot of good should go elsewhere for their reading.

The author’s website is lauraharringtonbooks.com

—David Willson

Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis

51ymlyxwh2bl-_sx326_bo1204203200_

Raeford’s MVP (CreateSpace, 452 pp., 16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third Vietnam War-themed novel by Rick DeStefanis, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72.  We reviewed the previous books—Melody Hill and The Gomorrah Principle on these pages.

This book focuses on Billy Coker, who is 19 years old and erving in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the war. He left behind the love of his life, the chubby Bonnie Jo Parker, in Raeford, Mississippi. Bonnie happens to have an amazing voice and a pretty face, the way many big girls in small American towns do.  She gives him a good luck piece to wear. Spoiler alert: It does the trick.

When Billy arrives back home, he struggles with psychological problems and with connecting with his old friends. Some of his best friends make an effort to help him, a very good thing.

But the war becomes Billy’s life and he has a terrible problem shaking it off. The fog of battle gets a mention. So does John Wayne.  And Puff the Magic Dragon. Agent Orange is not ignored.

Billy finds a honkytonk that has an “old Son House tune on the jukebox.”  I would love to find that place. I’ve never encountered Son House on a jukebox.  Wilson Pickett sings “Land of a 1000 Dances,” and Jane Fonda gets kicked around years before she takes her trip to North Vietnam.

DeStefanis has written an honorable book that will hold most readers’ attention.

The author’s website is rickdestefanis.com

—David Willson