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

The Last Vietnam Novel by Fred Vigeant

When I first picked up Fred Vigeant’s novel, The Last Vietnam Novel: Darling, They’re Playing Our War (336 pp. $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindel), I immediately thought I was about to enter the world of the Preston Jones’ play, The Oldest Living Graduate. Instead, I felt like Gulliver when he awoke in the land of Lilliput.

Above all, The Last Vietnam Novel offers a close examination of perspective and its role in how we determine our world views. While the book includes much humor and irony, the most potent message for this reader was the lesson in relativism.

The setting of Vigeant’s novel is the future. The year is 2054, and the author’s protagonist, Wonton Lively, the last living Vietnam War veteran, takes it upon himself to describe a future that the world has created. A world that takes absolutely no responsibility for the disaster it has created. As Wonton prepares for an interview with the “media giant Time/Netflix/Apple/Microsoft/Facebook/Pez,” he reminisces about life during the war in Vietnam.

One of Vigeant’s writing strengths is his ability to take the mundane, everyday routines of military life and turn them into magical stories that capture our attention and imagination. Another strength is Vigeant’s ability to write vivid dialogue in a tongue-in-cheek satirical style. The verbal exchanges between Lovely and his counterparts build complete images of the characters in the Last Novel. Wonton Lovely’s eloquence and post-ironic banter with a variety of characters sound natural and honest and, at times, reminds me of the work of the writer David Foster Wallace.

The story follows Wonton—the story behind the name “Wonton” is a great story in itself—Lovely’s recollections about ROTC, his active-duty, training, his first assignment in the states, and finally his tour of duty in the Vietnam War as he prepares for his interview. Fred Vigeant, a retired high school chemistry teacher, served as an Information Officer with the Americal Division in Vietnam in 1971.

His book is composed of one hundred fourteen chapters. Each is self-contained and reads like an O. Henry short story.

Fred Vigeant

In Chapter 28, “Major Alexander Seeks Respect,” Vigeant shows a deep understanding of the absurdity of the human condition. Lovely has been assigned to the Information Office at Ft Lee and has to report to the IO’s second in command, Maj. Alexander. 2nd Lt. Lovely has received orders for Vietnam and feels disposed to accept whatever requests the major has in mind.

The major wants Lovely to investigate why the guards at the entrance to Ft Lee do not salute him when he arrives on base. The conversation quickly devolves into one of those Catch 22 disjointed dialogues that use just about every form of ironic hyperbole, understatement, and rhetorical questioning imaginable.

The Last Vietnam Novel is a fast-paced and well-written book that I highly recommend. It goes down like Jack and Coke.

–Charles Templeton

Templeton, who served as a Marine Corps helicopter crew chief in the Vietnam War, is the author of Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam. His website is charlestempleton.com

As Leaves are Prey to Wind by John F. McGowan

John F. McGowan’s novel, As Leaves Are Prey to Wind (Grace O’Malley, 512 pp., $24.99, paper), looks at one Australian soldier’s experiences in the Vietnam War.

The novel’s protagonist, Brian Fronton, volunteers for the Australian Army. As he and two buddies are about to fly off to Vietnam, his father tells him, “Be a man son, like your uncles, be strong and take care.” He then shakes hands with his typically unemotional dad who says, “Come on son, man up for Christ’s sake, give me a firm handshake, you’re not holding a limp dick in your hand. are you?”

This is one of those novels that pretty well drops you right into the action. The young men arrive in Vietnam on page eight of the is 500-plus page book, flying into Tan Son Nhut on a QANTAS Boeing 707 commercial jet. They are then flown to Nui Dat in a C-130. The big plane lands, slows, turns around, and the men jump out the back while the plane begins rolling for takeoff.

Fronton decides to write regularly in a journal. He hopes to use the material later to help him become a “great novelist.” He’s assigned to a relatively safe base camp, but his job as a radio operator means he frequently goes out on patrol. After a few weeks, he writes, “My life is an adventure” in his journal. One night a buddy of his says, “I bet 99 out of every 100 Gooks are no different from me. Just poor dumb pricks in the hands of fanatic wankers.”

At one point he is dropped into the jungle to replace an injured signaler and is welcomed to what he’s told is the real war. But it’s not the one with the Viet Cong. Instead, it’s about being “tired, sore, wet and feckin miserable.” The mission is pretty single-minded: Seek out the enemy, track them, hunt them down, and kill them.

After talking with buddies about Australia’s World War I experience at Gallipoli, followed up with reading some Kipling, he notes to himself: “I had never thought about my possible death in war, but suddenly I am afraid. I do not want to die because Australia needs to keep trade relations with America.”

McGowan

On another patrol he’s told again that the real war is not the one with the “Feckin Gooks,” but the one with spiders, carnivorous ants, poisonous snakes, scorpions, and tigers. And leeches. Soldiers around him stop removing leeches from their bodies knowing they’ll eventually drop off.

Fronton writes in his journal that actual combat is not as bad on the nerves as dreading the constant possibility of contact.

“It’s the knowledge,” he writes, “that at any moment the world around you could erupt into death and destruction.”

The novel’s title, As Leaves Are Prey to Wind, refers to how little control humans have over what happens in our lives. That sense of helplessness becomes even more vivid during times of war. It is well expressed by John F. McGowan—who served in Vietnam with the Third Battalion Royal Australian Regiment—in this solid Vietnam War novel.

McGowan’s website is johnfmcgowan.com

–Bill McCloud

Boot by Charles L. Templeton

Charles Templeton flew more than 150 missions as a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crew chief in the Vietnam War from 1968-69. His book, Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam (S. Dogood Books, 317 pp. $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is made up of 37 short, disconnected chapters. The chapter titles tend to be wacky and whimsical. For example: “The Artists of Dong Ho,” “Panty Porn,” “Ly Cu Chi,” “Our Body of Hue,” “On the Road to Shambala,” “The Wisdom of Wombats,” “Operation Corduroy Peach,” “Dien Cai Dau,” and “Mystic Foxhole Yacht Club Bowl.”

All the chapters of this excellent book are well-written and interesting. Many are humorous; some are horrific and intensely graphic. The book is also sprinkled with bits of poetry by Vietnam War veteran Bill McCloud. Those poems are deftly presented to support the narrative.

Boot appears to be part memoir (it often seems as though it was written from notes Templeton took at the time) and part phantasmagorical novel. The protagonist is George Orwell Hill, or G.O. The book tell stories of G.O.’s life as a Marine in Vietnam, what he learns about the country and its people, and the impact his war experiences had on for life.

The author effectively develops believable and sympathetic characters, while simultaneously communicating the diversity of experiences and backgrounds of these characters who have been thrown together to work as a unit during a war.

Charles Templeton

I have read the chapters of this fine novel multiple times and what I am always left with is Charles Templeton’s clear intent to communicate an honest, authentic picture of the Vietnam War Marine Corps experience, as well as the complexity of factors specific to the Vietnam War, and the consequences of war that last far beyond its supposed end.

I enjoyed reading all 37 chapters of this book (as well as the prologue and epilogue) and wish there were more.

I recommend Boot to those looking for a well-written, unique, and interesting literary look at one man’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

The author’s website is charlestempleton.com

–David Willson

The Reunion by Thomas Conrad

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Thomas Conrad served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. I read his novel, The Reunion (Page Publishing, 256 pp., $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), in the handsomely produced paperback edition. The book has an in-country photograph on the back cover of a young man in jungle fatigues standing on a laterite landscape with a hand-lettered sign that includes the words “Fixed Wing Aircraft Prohibited.”

The Reunion tells the story of Bobby Gallagher, who returns to his hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, after thirty years to bid farewell to his dying mother. Bobby wound up serving in the Army in Vietnam due to the actions of a corrupt court judge during the trial process. Bobby has a serious score to settle with that judge, as well as with the father of his girlfriend who died in a car wreck.

Bobby resents that his girlfriend’s father framed him for the accident, when, in fact, the wreck was due to his girlfriend’s drunkenness. Much of this book is about Bobby figuring out a way to even the score with his ex-girlfriend’s father.

There is substantial in-country action in this novel demonstrating what Bobby spent his time in doing in the Vietnam War. He served with a Recon team and indulged in the dangerous and often out-of-control life of a 1969 Army infantry soldier.

There are many scenes involving drug dealing and combat action. If the reader is seeking a Vietnam War combat novel, this book will not disappoint.

This is a literate, well-written novel. It works well as a book of action and as a book about a family that has fallen apart.

–David Willson