Truth Is in the House by Michael J. Coffino

Michael Coffino’s new book, Truth Is in the House: A Novel Inspired by Actual Events (Koehler Books, 364 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $7.49, Kindle), considers the important effects that geography and environment have on the development of an individual’s personality. In this case, he focuses on the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City in the 1960s and the jungles of Vietnam during the war. Coffino grew up in the Bronx, and served in the U.S. Army in 1968-70.

The two main characters are Jimmy O’Farrell and Jaylen Jackson. O’Farrell is an only child. His  parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1957 from Ireland and they live in New York City. Jackson is an African American living with his brother and parents in segregated Dublin, Mississippi, where his family, Coffino writes, has to “navigate the mine-laden fields of Jim Crow terrain.”

In separate violent physical incidents O’Farrell is the victim of a gang-related attack and Jackson’s brother suffers an injury in a racially motivated assault. After a few other racial incidents, Jackson’s father goes missing and his mother takes her two sons out of the South and into New York City.

By 1965, as the Vietnam War escalates, Jimmy and Jaylen are finding success playing basketball at separate schools. The two meet on a playground basketball court, but then go their separate ways.

O’Farrell drops out of college and is quickly drafted. When he reports for induction, he ends up being inducted as a draftee into the Marine Corps. At about that same time Jackson enlists in the Marine, and their time at Parris Island overlaps. They both end up in South Vietnam in the fall of 1967.

Michael Coffino

At first, it was jarring to read about Jimmy and Jalen being in high school, then on almost the next page, in basic training, and then fighting in Vietnam. But, I really liked about how Coffino handled those transitions, as that’s pretty much how fast things seemed to move at the time.

Another thing I really liked was how Coffino made the military experiences of the two young men only about ten percent of the book. The rest sketches their lives before the war and the afterward.

What they experienced and learned in the military and in the Vietnam War stays with Jimmy and Jalen the rest of their lives, and giving plenty of space to their post-war lives works well in the depiction of the over-all lives of these men.

One of the book’s themes is learning to develop a strong moral code. As a result we see characters in Vietnam reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

Truth Is in the House is a great look at two young men growing into, and then out of, their military experiences and at the effects they have on their neighborhoods—and their neighborhoods continue to have on them.

The author’s website is https://michaelcoffino.com

—Bill McCloud

Shadows of Saigon by Mark R. Anderson

Mark R. Anderson’s Shadows of Saigon (Old Stone Press, 285 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99, e book), tells a story that more and more of us can relate to. It deals with an aging Vietnam War veteran looking back on his life and realizing the significance that his war experiences continued to play long after the fighting ended. Anderson served in the U.S. Navy Reserves and wrote this book to honor his father and uncle who both served in the war.

Grady Cordeaux, 68, is a Louisiana farmer who lives alone and has no family. R.C. Carter, 72, is his neighbor and also is a Vietnam veteran. Unlike Grady, R.C. is happily married and has been for several decades. R.C. says the two of them went to war as young men but were old when they came home. “Their rural farm upbringing shaped Grady and R.C. into the men they became,” Anderson writes, “but while they were still teenagers, they also experienced the trauma of war, which changed them forever.”

With no warning, Grady suffers an apparently severe heart attack. His first thought is about who will take care of his dog. He arrives at a hospital and the testing and treatments begin with R.C. frequently at his bedside. As he lies in bed with a newfound sense of mortality, Grady begins to think back on his life.

His memories from high school days include being a hero on the football field, falling in love, and having just enough run-ins with the law to be given a choice by a judge between jail and military service. June 1970 when he arrived at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for basic training was his first time outside Louisiana. Anderson portrays Grady’s time in basic more like something you’d see in a movie about Marine Corps boot camp rather than what it was like on an Army training base in 1970. It’s unlikely Army D.I.s would have yelled in the faces of trainees on the first day, calling them “sorry scrotum sack of pus monkeys” and “worse than dick cheese.”

Within days of arriving in the Mekong Delta Grady was moving through swamps and rice paddies and survived his first firefight. Grady planned to stay faithful to his girlfriend, even though he met a beautiful Vietnamese woman in Saigon (see the book’s cover). We read several letters he received from home. Over time those letters began telling the story of a nation turning more and more against the war.

.Anderson does a good job weaving Grady’s story through the times he’s fading in and out of consciousness in the hospital bed. When you intentionally bring back memories of the past, you often encounter issues that have yet to be resolved. For Grady—and for many of the rest of us—the time for dealing with those issues is beginning to run out.

–Bill McCloud

Chariots in the Sky by Larry A. Freeland

Larry Freeland’s Chariots in the Sky: A Story About U.S. Assault Helicopter Pilots at War in Vietnam (Publish Authority, 342 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a riveting novel of air combat action during Lam Son 719, one of the last big American combat operations of the Vietnam War, which took place in February and March 1971. Freeland served a tour during the war with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as an infantry officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot.

The story begins with a bang as Capt. Taylor St. James is piloting a Huey helicopter inserting ARVN troops into a new base camp just across the border in Laos. They soon run into enemy fire from the ground. Someone later remarks, “You have to have balls of steel to do that kind of flying.”

The purpose of Lam Son 719 was to stop the flow of NVA troops and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam, through Laos, and into South Vietnam. The job of the U.S. military was to provide air support for the ARVN forces. It would be the first real test of the President Nixon’s Vietnamization program.

St. James has left behind his wife, Sandy, a high school teacher whose first husband was killed in the war. They exchange letters in the form of recorded tapes. He sugar coats his, but makes daily entries in a journal that detail what’s really going on.

Aside from enemy attacks, we learn that the main categories of helicopter mishaps are bad weather, mechanical trouble, and human error. The story contains examples of at least three of these.

St. James’ company is located at Phu Bai and he’s frequently given the task of breaking in new pilots. As the missions begin going deeper into Laos, the losses of men and aircraft increase. The story also mentions Operation Ranch Hand, the use of the highly toxic Agent Orange defoliant. St. James also witnesses a few Arc Light missions involving concentrated bombing.

Helicopters are constantly being hit by ground fire and men inside wounded or killed. Bullets rip through his helicopter so often that St. James say it’s a “familiar sound.” Helicopters also keep crashing and making crash landings. He calls struggling with the controls to keep from losing his ship “like riding a mechanical bull at a Texas Roadhouse.”

On the ground there are dangers from rocket attacks, a typhoon, enemy sappers breaking through the wire, and the NVA moving south of the DMZ.

St. James writes to his wife, “You fight everything. The heat. The humidity. The bugs. The filth. The boredom. And the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Hell, some of us even fight each other. And for what? Why? I can’t figure it out. I may never understand it.”

In Chariots in the Sky Larry Freeland has written a great book about men who control their fears and fly into action knowing they need to be prepared to handle whatever happens.

Freeland’s website is larryfreeland.com

–Bill McCloud

Arlen’s Gun by Edgar Doleman

Prepare to lose some sleep over Edgar Doleman’s Arlen’s Gun: A Novel of Men at War (Authorhouse, 338 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $20.99, paper; $5.99). Of the many books written about the Vietnam War, few have been as entertaining and informative as Arlen’s Gun, the story of an AC-47 Spooky gunship crew. The majority of the novel takes place after the aircraft is forced down and the crew, with one of its miniguns in tow, finds its way to friendly forces. Along the way, they experience the Vietnam War novelty of fighting the enemy face-to-face, as opposed to looking down on them from the sky.

Doleman served two Vietnam War tours during his 20-year Army career as an infantry officer. As you start to read his book, you will experience a growing dislike for his antihero, Arlen, whose intent to steal a minigun and mount it in a limousine back in the States is not only fanciful, but indicative of an extremely sick mind. It isn’t until he experiences sorrow over the death of his companion that you begin to think there might be something worthwhile about this guy.

The most admirable of the book’s characters are the NCOs who manage to keep level heads amid the chaos around them and provide stability and much-needed advice to the young officers in their units. The novel does them justice.

I’ve done a lot of reading, but have seldom finished a novel of this length in three days. When you can hold the interest of an old geezer like me and get him wrapped up in a story that is fact-based and exciting, you have really accomplished something.

 –William J. Wright

Vietnam War AC-47 Spooky gunship, aka “Puff the Magic Dragon”

gt

A Bend in the River by Libby Fischer Hellmann

A Bend in the River (The Red Herrings Press, 406 pp. $17.99, paper; $6.99, e book) is a meaty, satisfying historical novel set during the Vietnam War by crime fiction writer Libby Fischer Hellmann.

The plot hinges on the aftermath of an incident in Vietnam in the spring of 1968. Two teenaged Vietnamese sisters helplessly see their family killed by American troops who then massacre the rest of the people in the village. The girls flee to Saigon, joining streams of refugees following the Tet Offensive heading to South Vietnam’s capital.

While living in a refugee camp they find jobs at a restaurant. The younger sister, Mai, finds work as a hostess in a Saigon lounge that caters to Americans. Tam goes off to join the female fighting forces of the Viet Cong known as the Long Hairs. Mai, fourteen, wears makeup to appear to be seventeen, having been told that is the “perfect” age for the business. She works at the Stardust Lounge, named after the Las Vegas hotel. It’s one of the few air-conditioned bars in the city.

Tam goes through a two-week training camp, then is encouraged to use her sister to collect information from loose-lipped Americans. But she refuses to involve the younger girl in that dangerous activity. After Tam kills a man in battle, she realizes she “could no longer accept that she was more principled than the enemy.”

We learn through Mai that many Vietnamese people in Saigon fearfully followed the first manned landing on the Moon, concerned that the gods were being tempted and might decide to punish people on Earth. Her VC sister, virtually unaware of such things, is busy recovering unexploded bombs, driving a supply truck, and exploring the tunnels of Cu Chi.

Whenever Tam is asked what village she’s from, she refuses to name it, simply saying it’s “not there anymore. The Americans destroyed it.”

As the war begins winding down the sisters are affected in serious but different ways. Though they are estranged we feel as though destiny may bring them back together. The story goes back and forth, a few chapters at a time, telling each girl’s story. It’s an efficient way of keeping the reader’s interest.

Libby Fischer Hellmann

Hellmann says she was driven to write this book because “Americans still see the war through a strictly American lens.” In an effort to learn more about the Vietnamese during the war, she read novels such as Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s The Mountains Sing, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

The results of that research are obvious in the book, but this story, and the telling of it, are strictly Hellmann’s own. Part popular fiction and part literary fiction, this deftly written book is well worth reading.

The author’s website is libbyhellmann.com

–Bill McCloud

Tour of Duty 1967: The Paymaster by Fred Herrin

Former U.S. Navy Seabee Fred Herrin’s Tour of Duty 1967: The Paymaster (332 pp. $14.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), is a highly entertaining, fast-paced novel about the American war in Vietnam in 1967.

As a Marine, when I looked at the title, I thought, “Yikes! Someone has written a war story about how rough Navy disbursement clerks had it in Vietnam.” That made it difficult for me to open the book. But when I did, I found Tour of Duty 1967 to be a well-written and thoroughly engaging war story. I must admit, this old Marine (when I say “old,” I mean my seven-eighty- deuce gear was a short sword and a shield) was totally engaged in the intricate tale that Fred Herrin has written.

When I read the book’s description, I thought Herrrin used the same blurb writer that half the people writing books about the Vietnam War seem to have used. After reading Tour of Duty twice, though, I saw that the blurb was accurate—and an insightful survey of the novel: “This fast-paced story will take you to the jungles of ‘Nam whether you’ve been there or not. You will reel with the realization of what our young men endured. The daily shelling, the constant threat of attack, the fear and shock and noise, making even the silence deadly.”

Tour of Duty is a brilliantly written, almost lyrical, tale of fiction. Herrin has crafted a story of intrigue and espionage involving Russians, the CIA, the Vietnamese, and a payroll clerk. It is a fantastic story written with a sense of humor that involves a wit so dry it makes the Sahara Desert look like Central Park.

Fred Herrin in country in 1967

In one scene, for example, the CIA is trying to find an excuse to remove the protagonist, Brad Scott, from his duties for a few weeks and go on some undercover operations. The CIA agent (disguised as an ensign) tells Scott’s LT that he has been sent to the hospital ship Repose to recover from an accidental gunshot wound. When the lieutenant asks what happened, the CIA agent says, “Left testicle, it’s gone, sir.”

The lieutenant responds, “Not self-inflicted then?”

The witty dialogue hides the fact that you are often being led into a complex mental ambush.

Tour of Duty is a rollicking adventure told by someone who was there, and is a book that is pretty much impossible to stop reading. Fred Herrin writes prose of clarity and wit.

If you are looking for an entertaining read, look no further.

–Charles L. Templeton

War Paint by Brian Lehman

War Paint (LuLu Publishing, 288 pp. $31.52, hardcover; $18.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Brian Lehman is the rare book that lives up to the hype on its back cover. Yes, this book really is “a quirky thriller and a naval warfare story like no other from the Vietnam War.”

Lehman served aboard a destroyer during the Vietnam War. His quirky story takes place during the waning days of American combat in the war, in early 1972, when a U.S. destroyer is used as bait by an unhinged fleet commander while a secret group of North Vietnamese commandos are making plans to board and take control of the ship.

The story begins in the present day when Jeffs Ryder gets asked that dreaded question by his grandson: “Grandpa, you ever kill anyone in the war?” This causes Ryder to begin to recall the most dangerous period in his military experience.

In the first months of 1972 the war is winding down—at least from the American perspective although thousands of NVA troops were crossing the DMZ into South Vietnam. Having been given the choice by a judge of going to jail or joining the military, Ryder enlists in the Navy and soon finds himself aboard the Navy destroyer Rattano sailing to Vietnam.

The fictional Rattano is affectionately known by crewmembers as “The Rat.” The ship moves with “the swagger of an aging but still dangerous gunslinger and, like that aging gunslinger, they wore their guns out where everyone could see them,” as Lehman puts it. The Rat’s captain thought he already had made his final deployment, and welcomes his return to action as a “bonus.” He thinks of the assignment as taking an obsolete destroyer into an obsolete war.

Brian Lehman back in the day

The North Vietnamese are aware of the Rat and, in fact, it may be one of the American ships that they’ve placed a bounty on. But most of the NVA troops are hungry, existing on meager rations, and are using military equipment that in some cases once belonged to the French. Many of the young Vietnamese, like many men on the Rat, do not understand the politics of the war and just want the fighting to end so they can go home.

The chapters begin with entries that could be drawn from a chronology of the war or from letters back and forth between men serving and women waiting back home.

I greatly enjoyed this glimpse into one aspect of Navy life as the war was winding down, especially because my two younger brothers were sailors at the time. I like reading about destroyers and the different jobs men held while on-board. And I liked comparing Lehman’s enlisted men’s official conversations with what they said when no officers were around.

Brian Lehman has produced a fine novel with memorable characters and realistic dialogue. It will remain in my memory, especially sentences like this one: “As he drifted off to sleep he could hear the aft guns come to life, sounding very distant as they began to hurl round after round across the peaceful sea into the southern outskirts of what was left of the city.”

–Bill McCloud

The Girl to His Left by Stephen P. Learned

The Girl To His Left (Bermondsey Books, 318 pp. $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is an entertaining novel about the military and the antiwar movement in the Sixties written by Stephen P. Learned, who says he didn’t serve in the military or take part in the protests against the Vietnam War. Learned is a retired U.S. Justice Department trial attorney who has been a long-time volunteer at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

We meet the title character, Shawn, on the first page as she takes a seat next to Paul Bondra at a pizza place. It’s the spring of 1966 in Pittsburgh and the two strike up a conversation. Paul is about to join the Marines and they bond over the next month, deciding to write each other while he’s gone in hopes they can maintain their relationship. They promise to be faithful to each other. “As long as you’re alive,” Shawn tells Paul, “I’m yours. But don’t come back a different person.”

After his first military haircut Paul says he looks “like one of those Mormon guys who knock on your door.” With Paul on active duty, Shawn transfers to the University of Wisconsin and becomes involved in the antiwar movement. She keeps it a secret from most people that she has a boyfriend in the Marine Corps.

In February of 1967 Paul’s plane lands at DaNang and he is quickly bused to Hill 327. While he is setting up security and night ambushes, Shawn is engaged in antiwar activities, including attending draft card burnings.

Soon Paul finds himself in the thick of things. He “felt the change in pressure caused by bullets snapping overhead,” Learned writes, coming from the “nasty clap of a Russian SKS semi-automatic carbine.” Paul notes that an after-action search of a hamlet bombed by Americans uncovered dead bodies. “Bad guys, good guys, who knew?”

As a platoon leader, Paul decides he “wasn’t going to kill anyone until his men killed first. Sure, he was a killer. But his job was to lead killers, not be one.”

Stephen Learned

Paul learns that he can get an early out if he extends his tour in Vietnam for six months. He considers it, but remembers that Shawn made him promise he would return as soon as he could.

He writes to her, spelling out his reasons for extending. She writes back saying she’s completely opposed to the idea. What’s more, she suggests that if he does extend his tour it would be a selfish act and she would end their relationship.

As you would expect of a good novel—and this is a very good one—bigger-picture historical moments are personalized through the eyes of the characters. This gives the reader a better understanding of exactly what those events meant to those who lived through them.

–Bill McCloud

The Gopher King by Gojan Nikolich

Gojan Nikolich’s new novel, The Gopher King (Black Rose Writing, 358 pp. $20.95, paper $5.99, Kindle), is not quite Alice going down the rabbit hole chasing the White Rabbit. But a few chapters into the book and you might think it’s Coraline going down a gopher hole with an M16 on full auto and a K-Bar in her teeth.

The story centers around Stan Przewalski, a weekly newspaper publisher in Bull River Falls, Colorado. Stan suffers from a severe case of PTSD after surviving a hellacious tour of duty in the Vietnam War, and Nikolich—a U.S. Army veteran—paints a verbal portrait of PTSD suitable for hanging in any VA hospital.

Stan, like many veterans who experienced combat, came home with the demons of war firmly in control of his life. He soon depends on therapy and pills to keep those demons in check. The healing process for Stan materializes in the form of a gopher—and not just any gopher. He is the Gopher King. Soon, Stan and the Gopher King, appropriately named Chaz, embark on an odyssey of mutual self-exploration. Chaz is an anthropomorphic literary device Nikolich uses to deftly to probe the depth of Stan’s problems and alleviate his PTSD.

On a sightseeing trip to Vietnam, Stan realizes that he cannot be redeemed. But he also discovers that facing his fears and the hidden places in his mind amounts to true bravery. And that the times he allowed himself to suffer at the hands of his demons actually were opportunities to face his fears.

Nikolich effectively plumbs the depths of PTSD through the magical world he creates that Stan enters. It’s a world populated with camouflaged gophers toting M16s and fighting to save their homeland. It’s full of misunderstandings, meaninglessness, pompous characters, reminiscences without purpose, and characters who make absolutely no sense and are based on vanity and cluelessness.

The residents of Chaz and Stan’s world mainly just want to get by and survive and maybe have a good time. Their world isn’t actually that much different from the real world, although the real world may be less exaggerated with its arbitrary rules and adult nonsense, crookedness, cowardice, and sordidness. Still, it contains those traits in equal measure—and in many ways the cruelty of the real world is more incredible.

Gojan Nikolich

Nikolich’s writing style drew me in immediately. He ticked all the good-fiction boxes for me: a good story, entertaining and creative descriptions, and mesmerizing dialogue. To the extent that a good novel entertains and enlightens, The Gopher King masterfully achieves both goals.

Nikolich’s portrayal of the characters is realistically accomplished. The humor and the story could provoke unwanted memories for the initiated, but they also can be of tremendous educational value for those with little knowledge of PTSD.

I highly recommend putting a velveteen gopher on the desk of every VA shrink and The Gopher King on your reading list.

–Charles Templeton

There It Is by Ken Harper

Ken Harper, a veteran of the Vietnam War, wrote two novels prior to his death in 2018. His wife was determined to get them published. After reading his first one, the mostly light-hearted, humorous There It Is (Luminare Press, 533 pp. $37, hardcover; $25, paper; $5, Kindle), I greatly look forward to the publication of the second novel in 2021.

Harper’s main character, Farragut Birdwell, tells his story in a self-aware, sarcastic, smart-ass manner. One of the delights of the novel is seeing Birdwell mature during his year in the Vietnam War.

Birdwell grew up in Baltimore. When he joined the Army he ended up being assigned to Fort Holabird, the home of the Army Intelligence Center, in his hometown.

Birdwell gets permission to start up a boxing club at Holabird, which he hopes will allow him to avoid “Saturday morning shit details.” When he tells his World War II Navy vet father about his pugilistic plan the only advice he receives is, “Hit more, get hit less.”

Birdwell spends off-duty time at an off-base coffeehouse, smoking weed and listening to literary discussions. Knowing he would likely be shipped to Vietnam, a buddy’s girlfriend says he should “go to Canada and avoid the whole shitaree.” Another buddy refers to Birdwell’s likely eventual destination as “Viet-fucking-death-comes-knocking-Nam.”

His job at Holabird involves doing background checks for security clearances. He gets pulled into some illegal activities, which result in him getting orders for Vietnam. It’s nearly the half-way point of the book when Birdwel larrives in country at a unit in Saigon that he’s told is “so far from the shit we can’t even smell it.” Before long, though, he’s sent into the field. At his new location he sleeps fully clothed at night, his rifle at arm’s reach.

Birdwell is not sure how encouraging an early letter from his father is when it says he should remember that “no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse.” Indeed, Birdwell ends up getting wounded in action. His job is coordinating intelligence, and he spends time gathering information on troop locations, friendly and non-friendly. He works a lot with maps until an officer tells him, “The map is never the territory—to know the territory means remaking the map. Which means we’re going into the territory.”

Ken Harper

Harper includes several jarring incidents of extreme violence that stand out from the way most of the rest of the book is written. That’s appropriate, as violent acts can often lead to a sense of shock, which seems to be what’s happening here.

Not only is Birdwell telling this story, but several times he lets the reader get into his mind. In those cases we read short chapters then immediately learn that what we just read didn’t actually happen. Apparently they were merely fleeting thoughts in his head. That makes for a wild ride.

This book is fun to read, with a chuckle on page after page. Even some of the darker moments are treated with humor because if we don’t laugh at them we might just go crazy.

Or, as we often said during the war: There it is.

The book’s website is harperthereitis.com

–Bill McCloud