A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington

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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.”

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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

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Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis

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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

The Man Who Walked out of the Jungle by Jeff Wallace

A version of Jeff Wallace’s novel The Man Who Walked out of the Jungle (MC Publications, 320 pp., $12.52, paper) was previously published as The Known Outcome.

The main character of this thriller is George Tanner, an American Army major who advises a Vietnamese military police company. In April 1970, a Caucasian male walks out of the rain forest just north of Saigon. He intersects with U. S. Army personnel and is shot and killed.

Most of the rest of this engrossing novel deals with finding out the identity of this man and what was he doing all alone in the jungle. He carried no I.D. and his clothing told those who found him very little.

Tanner is tasked with unraveling the mystery. He comes to find out that there are people who do not want him to find the answers.  Danger seems to lurk around every corner for Tanner as he stumbles around following the few clues he has.

This is a work of fiction, we are assured, but Wallace, a former Army officer, tells us that “the characters, facilities, organizations, military units” we encounter bear much similarity to their real counterparts. The historical setting rings totally true to me as I spent a lot of time in the very spots the author has chosen to place his story in.

Wallace’s representation of his Vietnamese characters is extensive and jibes with what I saw when I was in Saigon. The main character falls in love with Vietnam and with a woman named Tuyet. He wrestles with the problem of convincing her to go to America with him. She cannot imagine herself living in anywhere other than Saigon.

Jeff Wallace

This serious novel deals with Vietnamization, but does not dwell on the usual preoccupations of Vietnam War fiction. It is said more than once that we should have stayed the fuck out of Vietnam.  Attention is paid to the French at Dien Bien Phu. As for the Americans, Wallace writes: The “world’s best Army is struggling to defeat a bunch of rag tags.”

I enjoyed this thriller and was happy that it was more like a Graham Green novel than the usual infantry novel penned by often resentful and angry former draftees. I highly recommend it to serious readers of Vietnam War literature.

–David Willson

Phoenix Mistress by Frank Wadleigh

 

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Frank Wadleigh’s Phoenix Mistress (iUniverse, 208 pp., $24.95; $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is written in the first person, but the book is a novel and the characters are fictional—except for famous people. The book takes place in Saigon in 1969-71, which is when the author worked as a senior intelligence analyst at MACV on the controversial Phoenix pacification program. All of the details in the book on Phoenix, Wadleigh says, are true.

Often the book reads more like a memoir than a novel, but that is not unusual for books of this sort. The main character, a computer scientist, is assigned the job of investigating the effectiveness of the Phoenix Program. He is shocked that innocent civilians are targeted and tortured. He protests and when those protests are ignored, he faces a moral dilemma.

Then he meets the title character.  She is pictured on the cover of the book.

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Frank Wadleigh

This novel is engrossing and well-written. As this is a historical novel, expect to come across a lot of facts and names. I recommend it to those who wish to read a book about this particular aspect of the non-combat side of the Vietnam War.

Wadleigh tells us he was “directly involved in the Pacification program headed by William Colby who became CIA Director after the war.” So he knows what he is writing about.

—David Willson

 

For No Good Reason by Steve Banko

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Steve Banko dedicates his firs novel, For No Good Reason (No Frills Buffalo/Amelia Press, 318 pp., $14.95, paper), to the 1st Cavalry Division Garryowen troopers of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry who fought and died on December 3, 1968. Banko served sixteen months in Vietnam where he was wounded six times and received the Silver Star in addition to his four Purple Hearts.

For No Good Reason is a blood and guts Army infantry novel. My impression is that Banko drew heavily on his own wartime experiences for the narrative. In the acknowledgements he informs the reader that John Holcomb, his good friend, died saving Banko’s life on December 3, 1968, and that Holcomb was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Banko made it home to grow old and bald.

For No Good Reason namechecks both the usual and the unusual, including John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Sgt. York, Racquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, and Superman. Shit is burned in the rear and we are admonished to get the hell out of Dodge, and that we “gotta get out of this place.” The place is Indian Country where Pancho Villa is also making a stand. The “hurting kangaroo” I encountered was new to me. I predict I’ll not see him again.

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Steve Banko

The writing is made up of short sentences and punchy expressions. Here is a typical example:

“I was thinking of our next move when some screaming and shooting came from our right. Our two buddies got a bead on the machine gun when he opened fire on us and assaulted from behind it. It was like John Wayne and Audie Murphy came flying to our rescue. They were shooting and screaming and acting all kinds of crazy. When one gook fell from the tree, we got the message and started shooting too. When we stopped to reload, everything was quiet.”

Banko’s prose hooks the reader and never lets go.

I recommend this war thriller to those who have not overdosed on infantry action books.  It moves right along, never stopping for idle moments.

—David Willson

Asian Stained by W. Thomas Leonard

Now that I’ve read the stories in W. Thomas Leonard’s Asian Stained (BookBaby, 235 pp., $2.99, Kindle), I believe that the title indicates the author’s hard-held belief that the Vietnam War stains (or taints or besmirches) everyone who experienced it. This book starts off by introducing two Marines I assumed would be main characters, 2nd Lts. Kevin Charles Barrett and William Francis Kelly. Both are on the plane to Vietnam for their thirteen-month tour of duty. Leonard served as a Marine lieutenant in the Vietnam War in 1968.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to be surprised.

These two young men have been best friends since they were nine years old. They both had just graduated from Fordham, with scholarships, in 1967. Not exactly a great time to graduate from college. They both promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps and were assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, winding up in Dong Ha, in Vietnam in I Corps close to the DMZ.

The book then skips forward fourteen years to the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Two old men are at the wall—a Mr. Barrett and a Mr. Kelly. They find the names of their sons—Kevin Barrett and William Kelly—right at the top of the panel where they expected them to be. We’ve read five percent of the book, at least according to my Kindle.

The next section is entitled “Deserters.” However, we don’t get to follow Barrett and Kelly’s tours in Vietnam. I can deal with that, but what does the reader get? Lots of stories that follow. Including at least three dealing with Marines being incarcerated in brigs, with much detail about that confinement.

Twenty percent of the way through the book the reader encounters magical realism in the form of a vision or a fantasy of something that looks like a large aircraft with no wheels. It’s V-shaped and has the form of a wall. “It’s where the past, the present and the future merged,” a Marine says.  

This is a bleak book, made up of many stories, often of second-generation Americans who were raised in this country of opportunity and served in a war that horribly scarred them or killed them. The dozen or so stories are rarely happy ones, not even a little bit.

Once we get past “Deserters,” we are presented with stories in which hard-working veterans are fired unfairly or treated brutally. The stories are well-written but often hard to read. I, for one, hate to read about people who are cast into outer darkness for no reason other than the fact that someone with power can do so.

In one of the stories near the end of the book the character, Alex Kazakov, returns from his war minus his vision and three of his limbs. He is a character we get to know well, so his terrible scarring and crippling really hits home. Tears came to my eyes as I read the bad stuff that happens to him.  He’s lost everything but his mind. He learns Braille and does make something of himself, earning a Master’s in Creative Writing.

The overwhelming message of Asia Stained is a warning to everyone to avoid serving in the Marine Corps, especially in the Vietnam War. I didn’t need convincing; I am not going to recommend to my children that they join the Marines. My father was a Marine on Iwo Jima. One was enough for this family.

Read this collection of stories if you want to consume a really sad book of well-written tales about Marines. Otherwise, read something else. I’m having major trouble getting these stories out of my mind. And out of my dreams.

—David Willson

Three Joss Sticks in the Rain by Peter M. Bourret

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Peter Bourret served with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in the 1st Marine Division as a 81 mm mortarman in Vietnam from 1967-68. When he returned home, Bourret he studied at the University of Arizona. He has taught classes about PTSD for the past twenty-five years, and has written two books of poetry: The Physics of War:  Poems of War and Healing and Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares.

The 1968 Tet Offensive began soon after Bourret arrived in Vietnam. “The 1968 Tet Offensive, in particular,” he writes, “is key to the development”of his novel, Three Joss Sticks in the Rain (CreateSpace, 271 pp., $21.95, paper).  He doesn’t lie about that.

The story is not presented with an objective omniscient narrator perspective, but rather from four points-of-view: two young members of the Viet Cong—a brother and a sister—and two U. S. Marines, one an 18 year old and the other a 21 year old on his second tour of duty.

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The author

Bourret tries hard to communicate to the reader the complexities of the Vietnam War by presenting back-and-forth, alternating stories. Perhaps he overdoes that a bit—the patriotism and jingoistic attitudes of the VC soon seem like overkill. However, he does a good job showing us the ambushes and firefights from both ends of the action.

A thwarted rape is at the center of this complex novel. The Marine responsible later commits suicide. One of the characters states that “this war never seemed to go away.”  I wish he’d put himself in my place. I’ve been reading about the war since 1964. That’s too long.

We get the usual stuff of Vietnam War fiction in this novel: Ham and motherfuckers, John Wayne, Fighting Leathernecks, and Agent Orange. This Marine Corps novel, though, is a bit better than run of the mill. Read it and learn why you were smart not to be a Marine in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.

Three Joss Sticks in the Rain is one of the rare Vietnam War novels that takes great pains to show both sides of the war from the point of view of those who fought it. Peter Bourret, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, does an excellent job of doing so. Those who want to read a book that offers a good idea of what the VC were fighting for could do no better than to read this novel.

—David Willson