Firebase by Mark Anthony Sullivan

Mark Anthony Sullivan served in an Americal Division field artillery unit in Vietnam. In Sullivan’s Firebase: A Novel of Wartime Suspense and Romance (306 pp., $14.75, paper; $5.99, Kindle) the main character, Mike Ward, also serves with that unit at a forward firebase.

Ward arrives in the Vietnam War zone as troop withdrawals are in full swing with the Nixon administration’s policy of Vietnamization. It’s May 1970 and Ward is in the middle of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend who thinks that he should have stayed home and been a good boyfriend. That’s how she sees life.

Mike Ward had the option of serving in an Army Reserve appointment. His high morals caused him to see that as a copout, so off to Vietnam he goes.

He gets assigned to the 23rd Infantry Division (the Americal) out of Chu Lai. He doesn’t realize until later that that’s the Americal’s numerical designation. The book provides much detail of what the life of a Spec. 4 assigned to field artillery in the Vietnam War is like.

There’s also a lot of detail about the girl he left behind and her anger at him for choosing the Army over what she saw as his obligations to her. The entire novel is told in letter format and Sullivan makes it work well. He tells us that he had plenty of letters to work with and that he relied on them for information, tone, and other details.

His evaluation of our efforts in Vietnam is simple: “We’re going absolutely nowhere.” The difference between the Vietnam War and World War II makes it difficult for the characters to see progress. No land is captured and held. A war measured in body counts seems to be a war with no progress.

The Paris Peace Talks are discussed and dismissed as pointless as the participants could barely decide on the shape of the table, let alone on anything of importance.

John Wayne gets a mention or two, and shit burning is discussed, as does Agent Orange. My Lai also comes up, as it was attached to the Americal Division in peoples’ minds. Even though it took place when our main character was home in law school, he somehow gets blamed.

There is a lot of ill feeling aimed at soldiers serving in the war. The notion seems to be that if they only chose not to go into the Army, there’d be no Vietnam War. As if it was that easy.

Sullivan in country

This is a serious novel, well-written and well-organized. It has an ending unlike any I’ve encountered  before in Vietnam War fiction. Mike Ward’s girlfriend manages to redeem herself, at least in my eyes, by doing something that doesn’t just border on magical realism, but tests my brain in all possible respects. I won’t spoil it for the prospective reader.

Suffice it to say that the ending took my breath away. I read it over and over again, trying to get it straight in my mind. I never did manage to wrap my mind around it.

That’s my fault, I’m sure.

—David Willson

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Four Corners from LBJ by Marty Beebe

Marty Beebe, who served in the Vietnam War in 1969-70, is the author of the novels Orange Bug White Fender and Cussy Rode a ’34.  His latest book, Four Corners from LBJ (CreateSpace, 224 pp., $9.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is one of the strangest books I’ve read about the Vietnam War.

Beebe tells us it is a work of fiction. It seems to be a work of magical realism. The first half is mostly about a riot at LBJ in Vietnam. In this case, “LBJ” stands for Long Binh Jail. Spelling and sentence structure in this novel are erratic.

Daniel Beebe did the cover of this book in which a prison lookout tower dominates the top half, separated from the bottom half by concertina wire. The bottom half contains a map of the Four Corners area of the Southwest United States labeled “Navajo Reservation.”

Also listed on this map are the Ute Mountain Reservation, Mesa Verde National Park, San Juan National Forest, McGhee Park, Sunray Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Shiprock, and Farmington. I list them because they are the only way I can get at the subject of the second half of this strange book.

I’ve read a lot about riots in LBJ (the jail) and believe the pages devoted to that subject are fairly accurate. There is a lot of violence on both sides, including the guards and the inmates. Fire hoses and black rubber hoses are used for beatings.

Private Baker is the featured character in the novel and sort of holds the narrative together. The other main character is “a full-blooded Apache” named Sau who serves the purpose of being a mystical and spiritual guide to Baker when he is magically transported from LBJ in South Vietnam to the area of the United States featured on the map.

This is a short book with large print. It is one of the few I’ve read that attempts to deal in a serious way with riots in prison camps in South Vietnam. If you are interested in that elusive subject, read this book. It doesn’t take long to read. But be warned, it is fiction.

—David Willson

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 in Rockhampton, Australia, and lives in Tasmania. I wouldn’t be surprised if her father served during the Vietnam War. Certainly the way she characterizes the people in her novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult, 176 pp., $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), indicates she knows about Vietnam War veterans. Or she is a damned good researcher. Either way, her characters ring true.

I was relieved to read that the characters in the book are fictitious as I would hate to blunder into any of them in real life. Or in my dreams, for that matter.  Especially Uncle Les “who seems to move through their lives like a ghost, earning trust and suspicion.”

The backbone of A Loving, Faithful Animal (the only book I’ve read that presents the Australian ruins of the Vietnam War) is the fact that Ru’s father, an Australian conscript during the Vietnam War, has turned up missing, this time with an air of finality. This makes Ru think “he’s gone for good.” Or for evil.

One blurb writer says the book’s “astonishing poetic prose left me aching and inspired.”  I got half of that—unfortunately, the aching part.

I don’t know if the greeting, “Have a few bottles of Tiger Piss and get defoliated,” was invented for this book, or if it is a common one in Australia’s legacy of their involvement in the Vietnam War. I hope it is just particular to this novel.

A character cuts off both trigger fingers to avoid being drafted. That seems extreme to me. But the book reminds me that a prevalent attitude during the war was that if you were drafted you would be sent to Vietnam and if you were sent there, you would die there. I never understood that, but I did encounter it.

John Wayne does get a mention, so do Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, LBJ, and Ho Chi Minh. One of the comments a character makes about being the offspring of a Vietnam veteran is that she’s spent her life “trying to lead [her] father out of the jungle.”

The question gets asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?”  The answer is that Ho Chi Minh kicked over LBJ’s trike. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any.

Josephine Rowe

Early in the novel we are told that all chemical agents used in Vietnam “have been fully exonerated from causing veterans’ subsequent ill health, with the partial exception of the antimalarial drug Dapsone, whose status has not been resolved.”

That makes me feel better about the Multiple Myeloma that is killing me by degrees. The question about how many Vietnam vets it takes to screw in a light bulb gets asked. No answer is given.

If you feel the need to read a book about the impact of the Vietnam War on the people of Australia, start with this one.

You could do worse. I did.

—David Willson

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

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

Lincoln Park by James Westergreen

516ip8jobul-_sx331_bo1204203200_James Westergreen served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His novel Lincoln Park (Black Rose Writing, 242 pp., $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) starts off in Quang Phu in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in late 1969. The first paragraph is about leeches and Americans wading the paddies, mostly likely working in the Phoenix Program. I was hooked enough to keep reading.

The back cover blurb tells us that this book is a wartime thriller ranging “from the pleasure districts of Saigon to the back-alleys of Chicago.” MP Cpt. Tobias Riley is on a quest for vengeance as his buddies are double-crossed and their bodies litter the pages.

Naturally, there is an American deserter who joins up with a mysterious Madam who runs a heroin ring out of a hotel in Cholon. I spent a lot of time in Cholon, but never ran into anything exciting. But that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to read a novel about the time I spent in Cholon; it’d be too boring, and this novel is far from boring. The bloody exploits of villain Jack Flash in his Phoenix Program role keeps the pot boiling with his connections to “Air American pilots, Chinese warlords and rogue soldiers.”

The characters are running a race to the first to retrieve a lost C-47 full of heroin. The colorful, all-American language keeps the book anchored in the times: We read about Terry and the Pirates, Roy Orbison, OK Corral, My Lai and Lt. Calley, the Moron Corps, Davy Crockett, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Steve McQueen, Jim Morrison, Brigit Bardot, Nancy Sinatra, The Monkees, Glen Miller, Flash Gordon, Agent Orange, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” Geronimo, Saddle Up, Most Ricky Tick, FTA, righting with our arms tied behind our backs, Indian Country, the light at the end of the tunnel, Peace with Honor, cannon fodder, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—the list goes on and on.

Westergreen creates a verbal tapestry with this language, which holds the sometimes frantic plot and story lines together. The language is almost another character in this frantic and hectic thriller. The author is a superb word craftsman.

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James Westergreen

Double-cross and vengeance color most of the pages in this fast-paced book. Fans of wartime thrillers will love it.  Good luck in finding another book more filled with the violence associated with modern war and illegal drugs run amok.

Westergreen has made his career writing gritty action novels. He has hit new highs in this one.  Buy it and enjoy.

The author’s website is https://jwestergreen.wixsite.com/author

—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