The Travelers by Regina Porter

Regina Porter, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, did her Vietnam War homework for her new novel, The Travelers (Hogarth, 320 pp. $27, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Among other things, she interviewed a university historian who teaches a Vietnam War in Film class; read John Darrell Sherwood’s Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam Era; and researched the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to learn about the contributions of American female troops during the Vietnam War.

The novel begins with a two-page list of characters, which is kind of a key to the meaning of the book. Porter also offers a brief statement of time, which helps the reader some. “This novel,” she notes, “travels from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term.” The list of settings includes Long Island, New York, and the former South Vietnam. Even with this attempt to help the reader, though, the book sometimes comes across as a hodgepodge of events, characters, and places.

Mostly I enjoyed the book, but only by turning it into a game by keeping track of  all the references to the Vietnam War. They mounted up rapidly and made it possible for me to view The Travelers as a Vietnam War novel. The story deals with Agent Orange, the Tet Offensive, the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon’s war, the South China Sea, and Vietnam veterans more thoroughly than many literary Vietnam War novels do.

Porter places many of her characters in Vietnam where they do the things that young men were said to do during the war. Sex and drugs are given a lot of space, and the troops suffer psychologically by their involvement with those things. My painstaking mining of the text for Vietnam War references was rewarding, but likely would not be the way most readers will deal with the book.

The Travelers contains a fair number of photographic images, many related to the Vietnam War, including one of two sailors pressing pants on the USS Intrepid. The chapter entitled “I Know Where the Poison Lives” has a nice photo of the USS Oklahoma City and a powerful introduction to Agent Orange, including the line: “That shit ate up our daddy’s intestines.”  Porter goes on to discuss how Agent Orange affected Blue Water Navy veterans who served on aircraft carriers off the coast of South Vietnam during the war.

The role of African Americans in the Vietnam War is presented in the lives of the black characters, especially Eddie Christie, who serves on an aircraft carrier. During the war he is introduced to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and it becomes an anchor to his life in a sea of racial unrest.

One reviewer calls the book unlike anything she’s ever read. That’s true for me as well.

–David Willson

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A Genuine American Citizen Soldier by Al Navarro

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The heart of a citizen soldier contains non-militarized republicanism filled with a sense of public duty and civic virtue, according to historians. American Revolutionary War soldiers typified that ideal. World War II warriors solidified the image because the citizen soldiers in that conflict fought for international freedom. The Vietnam War might have been the citizen soldier’s final endeavor with the ending of the draft in 1973.

Alberto (Al) Navarro assumes the mantle of a citizen soldier in A Genuine American Citizen Soldier (362 pp. $25, paper; $4.99, Kindle), an autobiographical novel in which he becomes Arcadio Polanco, a Panamanian who enlists in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War summer of 1966 to qualify for American citizenship. At the urging of his wife, Navarro wrote the book as a history lesson for his children.

Navarro’s novel primarily deals with 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War at the age of 21 when he was stationed at Hoi An with the 37th Signal Battalion. He admits to taking liberties with his descriptions of combat action and characters. As a result, Polanco’s insights into leadership, strategy, and combat go beyond a grunt’s point of view. For example, his description of action during the 1968 Tet Offensive has depth that reflects research. In particular, he lauds the battle skills of Republic of Korea soldiers.

Most emphatically, Polanco/Navarro understood his destiny. He earned promotions and medals by seeking and performing duties beyond his pay grade. Disappointment did not daunt him. Promised a non-combat assignment upon enlisting, he became an outstanding citizen soldier when sent into the war zone.

Navarro’s style of writing contains conversations and accounts of routine activities that occasionally slow development of the story line. Otherwise, he clearly delivers his true-to-life message of how a person must repeatedly overcoming obstacles to reach a goal.

Al Navarro—the president of Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chapter 343 in Houston—completed active duty in the Army after completing his three-year enlistment. He went on to serve in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard from 1972-2002, retiring as a Sergeant Major.

Following his naturalization process in December 1969, Navarro proudly says he became “a GENUINE AMERICAN CITIZEN.”

—Henry Zeybel

Legacy of War by Ed Marohn

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Vietnam War veteran Ed Marohn’s novel, Legacy of War (BookBaby,  340 pp. $16.95, paper), is a military thriller that delivers all the goods.

The protagonist, John Moore, is an overworked psychologist who has never gotten over the death of his wife from cancer. His bouts with depression and nightmares relating to his combat experiences in the Vietnam War have lead to his professional decision not to accept any patients who are veterans. That is, until now.

Dealing with a new client ends up with Moore learning a tale of the CIA’s war-time Phoenix Program gone wrong and a covered-up massacre, which gets him involved in a story of revenge—and a search for buried gold. Moore ends up grudgingly accepting an unofficial CIA invitation to return to Vietnam and help untangle a mind-bending mess. Before long, the hero says to himself, “This stuff sounds like a spy novel.”

He’s also aware that no one is telling him the complete story about anything. But he has his own reasons for getting involved.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam needs unofficial assistance from the CIA at the same time the CIA needs hush-hush help from the Vietnamese. It turns out that the reasons for Moore being pulled into this secretive, dangerous mess go back more than thirty years. Some characters are trying to forget things they remember; others are trying to remember things they’ve forgotten.

The first half of the book is filled with conversations and explanations, but once the story gets going, it moves with the speed of a piano falling out of a thirteen-story window. At almost exactly the halfway point Moore is back on the “ancient soil of Nam,” wearing a .45 caliber pistol in a shoulder holster. Before long, he’s once again “humping through the Vietnamese boonies.”

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Ed Marohn

References to the Vietnam War are sprinkled throughout the book, as when Moore walks down a hall in an apartment building and notes that it resembles “a dark tunnel with a light at the end.” The apartment he’s looking for is “number ten.” A suicide note left by a Vietnam War vet says, in part, “It don’t mean a fucking thing.”

Notable characters include Moore’s female associate, a buddy he’s stayed close with since they served together in 1969 and 1970, and a female member of the Vietnamese National Police.

You want beautiful women, you got it. You want shootouts, you got it.

Most of the action takes place over a fifty-day period in late 2002, early 2003. More than one surprise makes this one well worth sticking around to the end for.

Ed Marohn served with the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division in the Vietnam War. His website is writingsfromed.com

–Bill McCloud

A Matter of Semantics by Frank Linik

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Frank Linik’s writing has appeared in several publications. A chapter of his first novel, A Matter of Semantics: A Young Officer’s Decision: Duty or Loyalty in the Vietnam War (BookBaby, 292 pp., $14.99, paper; $3.82, Kindle) was published in the literary journal Innisfree as a short story.

The author, who served as an officer with the 173rd Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1968-69, says that his book is a work of fiction and that the characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from his imagination and are not to be construed as real. He admits, though, that the incidents he portrays are based on his experiences and those of other infantry lieutenants he knew and that the demands of storytelling caused him to craft a book that explores the impact that fighting in a war has on individuals.

Linik thanks his main character, Bill Brandt, “who led me down paths I never expected to write about and created a novel.” He also thanks the three fine battalion commanders and two captains under whom he served in Vietnam. He goes one step further and notes that he was honored to have served with fine enlisted paratroopers as a platoon leader. As his characters say in the book over and over, “Airborne!”

The book begins with Bill Brandt’s first night in Vietnam in Long Binh where he and the rest of the men being in-processed come under mortar attack. Linik does a fine job describing what it was like to experience such an attack for the first time. He and the others seek the safety of a nearby bunker, and try to help a wounded man who drowns in his own blood. Brandt’s war has begun.

Soon we learn about the Inspector General’s role in the war and are told what REMFs are. Indian Country is also presented to us, as are ham and lima beans c-rations in all their loveliness. And we are told that this is not a war, but a word game. But, of course, it is a war and the word-game aspect of it gets a lot of people killed.

Early in the book we find out that Brandt was an English major at Virginia Military Institute and studied military history as well. That helps explain why this novel is so well written and organized.

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Frank Linik

The entire novel was a pleasure to read, even though I’ve read hundreds of in-country Vietnam War infantry novels and this one is not drastically different from the others—except in quality. I was grateful for the elegance and high quality of the writing.

A Matter of Semantics is self-published, and now I would like to complain about that. There should have been a publishing company eager to accept this fine novel. It is a shame that there was not.

In every way this novel stands head and shoulders with the best books written about the American war in Vietnam. Thanks to Frank Linik for writing it. I read it all in one day with great pleasure.

–David Willson

10 Cents and a Silver Star by Bruce D. Johnson

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I’ve been waiting many years to read a novel of the Vietnam War and its lasting impact that is as enjoyable as Bruce D. Johnson’s 10 Cents and a Silver Star… A Sardonic Saga of PTSD  (Edit Ink, 386 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle )

Johnson begins his book with the main character, also named Bruce Johnson, pretty casually receiving a Silver Star. It’s 1969 and he is awarded the medal for actions he took while fighting in South Vietnam’s III Corps with Army’s the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Specialist Johnson gets no comfort from the medal, believing it to be the result of some “bureaucratic blunder.” He’s pretty sure it was actually intended for his best friend, Bill Hastings, who died in Johnson’s arms while they were engaged in combat.

In that way, his sense of survivor’s guilt becomes even more complicated by receiving a medal he is sure was meant for his buddy. Johnson’s actions during the firefight may have been worthy of a Silver Star, but he was so stoned at the time that he has no idea and certainly doesn’t think so.

Johnson considers the Vietnam War to be “the insane asylum of this planet,” and notes that actions taken by American troops in Vietnamese villages sometimes made those soldiers appear to be “the Peace Corps in reverse.”

The story is told by someone who apparently has determined that life is merely time filled with one absurd incident after another. Johnson is sent to a Fire Support Base for just one day but a misunderstanding keeps him there for six weeks. That’s long enough for his original unit to consider him missing and for his parents to be notified.

Or maybe they weren’t. You can’t be sure if all the things that are supposedly happening in the book are actually happening. It leads you to constantly wonder what is real in this fictional world and what isn’t. So this is not a book you just read, but one you’re forced to engage with, which isn’t a bad thing.

After his year in Vietnam, with the war basically over “except for the shooting,” Johnson returns home to Chicago. He has that Silver Starl which he’s been told will get him a cup of coffee anywhere—if he also has a dime.

It turns out, though, that the medal serves as almost a good-luck charm. It opens up many doors and provides many opportunities that would not have been available to him otherwise. Yet he constantly struggles with the realization that the medal really isn’t his, and belongs to his best friend who paid the ultimate price for it.

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Bruce Johnson

Johnson decides to locate the parents of Bill Hastings and present the medal to them.

 

This novel is written in a hilarious fashion. It’s not often that I laugh out loud when I read something, yet I did several times while reading this book. It’s filled with jokes that keep coming at you in machine-gun style, probably averaging three a page, and at least eighty percent of them work.

They work because—as funny as they are—you are constantly reminded of what the source of the humor is. It’s an attempt to deal with (and make sense of) a world and an existence that is often cold, cruel, and senseless.

Bill McCloud

The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette

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Rita Dragonette’s novel, The Fourteenth of September (She Writes Press, 376 pp., $16.95, paper; $8.69. Kindle) is based on her personal experiences as a college student during the Vietnam War beginning in September 1969. That’s when she witnessed a confrontation between ROTC trainees and antiwar student demonstrators who were not sympathetic to those who had ended up in ROTC. This complex novel is, in essence, an inquiry into the domestic politics of protest when the world seems to stop making any sense.

The publisher describes the book as a “coming of conscience novel.” I read the book trying to make sense of that description. My guess is that the main character, PFC Judy Talton, wakes herself up politically by joining the campus anti-Vietnam War movement on her nineteenth birthday.

She is apparently not aware that by doing so, she is jeopardizing her Army scholarship, as well as alienating her military family. She asks her herself, “Who is she if she stays in the Army? Who is she if she chooses to leave?”  Good questions. Neither is easily answered.

The late summer of 1969 is a pivotal time in the Vietnam War, and it becomes a pivotal time in the life of a young and callow young woman who is riven with doubts about her identity and the identity of those around her. Are they her friends? Can she trust them to try to understand what is going on with her?

Few books have taken the time—and space—to examine so thoroughly the collegiate antiwar movement in small-town America. The story held my interest and reminded me of what was going on in Pullman, Washington, around the same time. The tone rang true in every line.

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Rita Dragonette

I was interested in the impact that the draft lottery and its rippling effects had on a generation heavily influenced by the chance uncertainty the lottery had on hundreds of thousands of young people. I had barely paid attention to the lottery because I was one of the young men drafted before the it was instituted.

 

This novel opened my eyes to issues that my thick skin and my age had protected me from. We are admonished to read this book and weep, and I actually did shed a tear or two of sympathy.

If you’re like me, after you read this well-written novel, it will be difficult to put it out of your mind.

The book’s page on the author’s website is ritadragonette.com/projects/the-fourteenth-of-september

—David Willson

Somebody’s Catching Hell by Peter Smith

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Peter Smith served as a U.S. Marine Corps aerial photo interpreter in DaNang in the Vietnam War, including during the 1968 Tet Offensive. His novel, Somebody’s Catching Hell (Prospect Publishing, 343 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his experiences in the war. We learn, among other things that the Marines doing his job placed themselves seriously at risk taking their pictures.

The book contains a useful glossary, as well as an informative epilogue. The epilogue informs the reader about what happened to some of the novel’s characters.  “The Marines who fought at the ARVN Compound and Da Nang River Bridge during the 1968 Tet Offensive had varied civilian lives after mustering out of the Marine Corps,” Smith writes. “Some were successful and some were not.”

The novel examines the Vietnam War from the point of view of those who should not have been involved directly in engaging the enemy, but who sometimes did not manage to avoid combat in close-quarters. Often in hair-raising circumstances.

Duke Dukesheirer and his buddies have dreams of stealing flight attendants’ silk panties, and those fantasies keep them going. The book mostly concentrates on Duke and his buddies and their relationships with each other and the locals, which makes for a nice contrast. Duke stares down a stereoscope looking for potential North Vietnamese rocket sites “until his eyeballs begin to look like a contour map of Mount Suribachi.”

The writing is descriptive and sharp. Details about the warp and woof of Marine wartime headquarters came alive on the page for this reader.

Anyone who wishes to learn more about this ostensible non-combat arm of the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War should give Somebody’s Catching Hell a close reading.

I enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it.

–David Willson