Zigzag Men (Brass Books, 273 pp. $14.95, paper; $2.99, ebook) by Larry Sherrer is an enjoyable, darkly humorous novel of the Vietnam War, focusing on a group of helicopter pilots battling an inefficient, inept military system every bit as much they’re fighing the enemy. In fact, the “villain in this novel,” Sherrer tell us, “is a dysfunctional army.”
Larry Sherrer, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served as a scout helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. He flew out of Quan Loi Base Camp near An Loc in South Vietnam in 1971, the same location and time in which the novel takes place.
Warrant Officers Eldon Zigman and “Roach” Surr arrive together in-country, having been friends since flight school. Zigman, who is almost too tall to be a helicopter pilot, quickly develops a bad attitude about the Army and the war. Roach is almost not tall enough and didn’t like the Army from the get-go. The only thing he hates more than lifers is the Army itself.
Both men were draftees. Now they’re entrusted with flying quarter million-dollar helicopters at a time when there is an appalling attrition rate for chopper pilots.
Flying as scout pilots out of Quan Loi, the two men see plenty of air action. Zigman is convinced the system is going to kill him, but he feels powerless to change it. He’s constantly making lists of ways he might die and separating them into categories.
A few pilots are considered to be jinxed because they always seem to find trouble. Sherrer writes about men who don’t want to be promoted into additional responsibilities and others who have concerns about the quality of aircraft maintenance. In one scene, a pilot battles to control a helicopter that suddenly loses its hydraulics. In another, a pilot loses his memory after his helicopter is hit. Another has an out-of-body experience in reaction to combat.
Humor is often an important way people in the military deal with stressful situations. Using humor in writing about the experience can be an effective technique. I’m keeping Zigzag Men in my library to reread again. Highly recommended.