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

There Comes a Time by Jack Nolan

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Jack Nolan’s novel, There Comes a Time (Stillwater River, 306 pp. $16, paper; $7.99, Kindle), deals with the exploits of a group of men who refer to themselves as “The Greyhawk Six.” The guys trained together at fictional Fort Greyhawk Intelligence School and arrived together in Vietnam in September 1967 in Army intel. Nolan himself did a tour of duty in Army intelligence in the war.

The men wear civilian clothes and work different types of special operations, functioning as soldier-spies. A lot of their work involves typing and filing, but some sometimes they get involved in matters the CIA is supposed to be doing.

The sequel to his 2018 novel, Vietnam Remix, this is a tale of agents and double-agents. One of the men uses a cover in which he’s an employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. He also has a different, phony photo-ID and paperwork in case he needs an escape cover.

The nine chapters in this book are written as if they were individual short stories. Most could stand on their own. That includes the chapter involving one of the men who, after having his life saved, undergoes a religious transformation. It’s reminiscent of something that could have been in Catch-22.

The characters do not get involved in jungle fighting, though one survives being in a Jeep “shot to pieces,” and another witnesses a friend being shot and killed. The men frequently take Vietnamese mistresses, some in their early teens. As Nolan puts it: “In the pseudo-military realm of civilian-cover Intelligence, cohabitation with a Vietnamese woman was forbidden and, also, not uncommon.”

One of the men uses a position with the Catholic Church as his cover. Another opens an office supply store. All of them end up loving some of the Vietnamese people they come into contact with, hating others, and fearing a few.

Most of the story takes place around a fictional Military Intelligence Company’s headquarters in Saigon and at a big field station in the coastal city of Vung Tau, which Nolan describes as a “place that was immune to war by virtue of being a narrow peninsula surrounded by warships.” One of the men, upon returning home, continues to dream of the “pretty girls on the beach at Vung Tau.”

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Jack Nolan in-country

The plot also includes Vietnamese twin brothers who chose different sides in the war, but continue to love each other. In many ways, they represent the history of the divided people of their country.

This is a dense novel—not in page numbers, but in the depth of the story. It is not an action-adventure pulp-ish war novel. Written more in the style of Graham Greene, There Comes A Time was a joy to read.

–Bill McCloud

On Thunder Road by Michael Alan Shapiro

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At the beginning of Michael Alan Shapiro’s autobiographical novel, On Thunder Road (325 pp., Booklocker.com $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), main character Paul Gebhart volunteers for the draft in 1967 “to prove my manhood to the guys in the neighborhood. It was a stupid thing to do.” Having been “raised on war movies,” this New Jersey boy leaves home to receive training at Fort Carson and Fort Riley.

The last thing his father tells him before he leaves for Vietnam is, “Be smart over there and write your mother.” As the plane lifts off, a clock begins ticking in Paul’s mind as the countdown for his one-year tour of duty begins.

Arriving in-country in late 1967 he reports to Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 10th Infantry, in the Army’s First Infantry Division just outside Long Binh. He is immediately told: “You’re going to see some action with this unit.” Bravo Company is charged with helping keep Thunder Road open. That’s what GIs called Highway 13, which was used by most vehicles heading west out of Saigon.

Assigned to a mortar unit, he begins regularly smoking marijuana, and quickly learns that he is fighting alongside several guys who had been in trouble with the law and were given a choice between joining the Army or going to prison.

The daily routine for Paul Gebhart and his fellow soldiers includes morning patrols to sweep the roads for landmines. In the afternoon, they patrol through wooded areas and practice with the mortars. At night there’s perimeter duty. Pot smoking is part of the routine.

On one occasion outside the perimeter Paul experiences a mystical sense of being a part of a brotherhood with men who fought in the American Civil War and with Roman soldiers two thousand years ago, as well as with those who took part in the Crusades.  

He learns to cut a slit in his green towel and wear it like a Mexican serape to help keep the sun off his shoulders. He also learns what it means when you see sandals that have been melted into a blackened, scorched piece of earth.

As the year rolls over into early 1968 Paul hears rumors about guys who’ve dropped acid and walked off into the jungle to make peace with the enemy. But, at the same time, he also hears rumors about guys who would pay to walk point for someone else because they want all the action they can get.

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Big Red One troops on patrol

At base camp the troops continue to smoke dope. Word is that officers several steps up the chain of command are aware of that illegal activity, but allow it because when it comes time to fight the men fight.

Moving through the summer months, Paul Gebhart learns that “getting short is all about being scared.”

In this novel Michael Shapiro does a great job describing how the war changes his main character in ways that we know will make it difficult for him to escape his memories of the war after he comes home. This is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

–Bill McCloud

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

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