For No Good Reason by Steve Banko

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Steve Banko dedicates his firs novel, For No Good Reason (No Frills Buffalo/Amelia Press, 318 pp., $14.95, paper), to the 1st Cavalry Division Garryowen troopers of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry who fought and died on December 3, 1968. Banko served sixteen months in Vietnam where he was wounded six times and received the Silver Star in addition to his four Purple Hearts.

For No Good Reason is a blood and guts Army infantry novel. My impression is that Banko drew heavily on his own wartime experiences for the narrative. In the acknowledgements he informs the reader that John Holcomb, his good friend, died saving Banko’s life on December 3, 1968, and that Holcomb was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Banko made it home to grow old and bald.

For No Good Reason namechecks both the usual and the unusual, including John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Sgt. York, Racquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, and Superman. Shit is burned in the rear and we are admonished to get the hell out of Dodge, and that we “gotta get out of this place.” The place is Indian Country where Pancho Villa is also making a stand. The “hurting kangaroo” I encountered was new to me. I predict I’ll not see him again.

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Steve Banko

The writing is made up of short sentences and punchy expressions. Here is a typical example:

“I was thinking of our next move when some screaming and shooting came from our right. Our two buddies got a bead on the machine gun when he opened fire on us and assaulted from behind it. It was like John Wayne and Audie Murphy came flying to our rescue. They were shooting and screaming and acting all kinds of crazy. When one gook fell from the tree, we got the message and started shooting too. When we stopped to reload, everything was quiet.”

Banko’s prose hooks the reader and never lets go.

I recommend this war thriller to those who have not overdosed on infantry action books.  It moves right along, never stopping for idle moments.

—David Willson

Escape from Saigon by Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo

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Michael Morris served in Vietnam in 1967-68 as an infantry sergeant in Northern I Corps, taking part in the Tet Offensive. Dick Pirozzolo served the war in 1970-71 as an Air Force information officer in Saigon where he helped conduct daily press conferences known as the “Five O’Clock Follies.”

Their novel, Escape from Saigon (Skyhorse, 264 pp., $24.99) deals in detail with the month of April 1975, during which thousands of people scrambled to get out of Vietnam prior to the North Vietnamese takeover. Lots of suspense is built in this novel as we get to know many of the various people trapped in what rapidly becomes a besieged city.

One of my favorite characters is a long-haired, hippie-looking former GI who returns to Saigon to rescue his Vietnamese wife’s relatives. One of them does not want to leave as she is convinced it would not be so bad to be in Saigon under the communists. Also, she has a lover she does not want to leave behind. Our hero speaks fluent Vietnamese, which he uses to his advantage.

wall02The American ambassador is portrayed as more than half crazy. He does not want to leave and sees no reason to do so. He takes some convincing.

The near-total confusion and breakdown of a great city is well portrayed and works well as a cliffhanger thriller. I highly recommend it to those who are interested in what it was like at the end in Saigon in April 1975.

I was safe at home in Maple Valley, Washington in April of 1975, but part of my heart was in Saigon, the Paris of Southeast Asia. I shed a tear when I heard the announcement on the radio, and I shed a few tears reading this fine thriller.

–David Willson

Three Joss Sticks in the Rain by Peter M. Bourret

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Peter Bourret served with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in the 1st Marine Division as a 81 mm mortarman in Vietnam from 1967-68. When he returned home, Bourret he studied at the University of Arizona. He has taught classes about PTSD for the past twenty-five years, and has written two books of poetry: The Physics of War:  Poems of War and Healing and Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares.

The 1968 Tet Offensive began soon after Bourret arrived in Vietnam. “The 1968 Tet Offensive, in particular,” he writes, “is key to the development”of his novel, Three Joss Sticks in the Rain (CreateSpace, 271 pp., $21.95, paper).  He doesn’t lie about that.

The story is not presented with an objective omniscient narrator perspective, but rather from four points-of-view: two young members of the Viet Cong—a brother and a sister—and two U. S. Marines, one an 18 year old and the other a 21 year old on his second tour of duty.

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The author

Bourret tries hard to communicate to the reader the complexities of the Vietnam War by presenting back-and-forth, alternating stories. Perhaps he overdoes that a bit—the patriotism and jingoistic attitudes of the VC soon seem like overkill. However, he does a good job showing us the ambushes and firefights from both ends of the action.

A thwarted rape is at the center of this complex novel. The Marine responsible later commits suicide. One of the characters states that “this war never seemed to go away.”  I wish he’d put himself in my place. I’ve been reading about the war since 1964. That’s too long.

We get the usual stuff of Vietnam War fiction in this novel: Ham and motherfuckers, John Wayne, Fighting Leathernecks, and Agent Orange. This Marine Corps novel, though, is a bit better than run of the mill. Read it and learn why you were smart not to be a Marine in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.

Three Joss Sticks in the Rain is one of the rare Vietnam War novels that takes great pains to show both sides of the war from the point of view of those who fought it. Peter Bourret, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, does an excellent job of doing so. Those who want to read a book that offers a good idea of what the VC were fighting for could do no better than to read this novel.

—David Willson

Replacements by Alan Quale

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Alan Quale served as a supply sergeant for an infantry company in the Vietnam War in 1967-68. His first book, My Dakota, is the story of his life on the Great Plains. Quale’s mother saved all her letters her son sent from Vietnam in a shoe box, which formed the backbone of Replacements: Endless War and the Men Sent it Fight It (CreateSpace, 252 pp., $12.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). Quale had a degree in journalism from the University of North Dakota before he was drafted into the Army.

Quale says this book is fiction. But then he says: “Replacements is my personal story from Vietnam. When writing it, I realized how fortunate I am. There were many other soldiers who also had stories to tell, but they didn’t survive. They were suddenly gone, and then they were replaced, and the war continued without them.”

This is a plainspoken book, with no flowery literary embellishments. It’s easy to read and well worth reading.

Alan Quale tells us that writing this book was therapy for him. He had a lot of bad dreams and his wife encouraged him to talk to her about them. He did that. His wife rescued him. He’d had the same nightmares over and over. What was his subconscious trying to tell him? His dreams were all about replacements.  He’d survived the Vietnam War, but many others had not.

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Alan Quale

“My nightmare shamed me and scolded me over and over again, and then it made me feel the last terrifying moments of life itself,” Quale writes, “a feeling likely experienced by several men in B Company when they were badly wounded.”

In Vietnam, he says, “you survive any way you can.”

Quale was stationed at LZ Bronco near Duc Pho in Quang Ngai Province south of Da Nang. It was a Viet Cong stronghold.  He arrived on December 6, 1967, at Duc Pho and enjoyed a full year of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath.

The shooting started when the sun set and seemed to never stop. But Alan Quale survived to write this great book.  We are grateful for his survival.

—David Willson

A Portion of the Loveliness by Christoph Feldkirchen

Christoph Feldkirchen’s  A Portion of the Loveliness (Feldkirchen Press, 212 pp., $11.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle) is a work of fiction. There are three short novels in this book; the first one, “Nothing Could Happen,” deals with the war in Vietnam. That title is taken from a long quotation from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that sets the tone of the book. It is a scene in which a man-of-war ship sends shells from the Congo River in the African jungle trying to hit unseen enemies. It reminded me of the American war in Vietnam, which I suspect is intentional.

The main character of this short novel, Feldkrichen (like the author), tells us he entered Navy boot camp in September 1965. Later he describes his onboard duty on a ship nicknamed “The Bucket.”

“If you were unlucky, you might work all day, be CQ all evening, stand a midnight to four a.m. watch, grab two hours of sleep, and be on duty all next day,” he writes. “Everyone was tired, all were irritable and there was no end of griping.”

I’ve not read many novels or memoirs dealing with Navy duty during the Vietnam War. I enjoyed this one. When it ended, I found myself wishing for more, a rare feeling when reading a book I knew nothing about before I started it.

This short novel is light hearted, well written, and it reinforces my long-ago decision to spend my tour of military duty in the Army. The graphic descriptions of seasickness made me slightly nauseous.  (Full disclosure: The chemo I am on makes me feel that way often enough anyhow.)

Thanks, Christoph Feldkirchen, for writing this book. The other two novellas also were good. Please consider writing a full-length novel or memoir of your time in the Navy. I promise I will read it.

—David Willson

The Gun Room by Georgina Harding

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The British author Georgina Harding has published three acclaimed novels—The Solitude of Thomas Cave, The Spy Game, and Painter of Silence. Her latest, The Gun Room (Bloomsbury, 224 pp., $26), takes a proud place with the previous books. I find no evidence that Harding has any military background, but there is a lot of the Vietnam War in this novel, and no noticeable clunkers.

The main character is Jonathan, a young British photographer with a farming background who hitches a ride out to the war on a helicopter and blunders onto a My Lai-type massacre in a village. He takes a photograph of an American soldier sitting staring into space. This photo ends up on magazine covers as an iconic image of the Vietnam War.

The war follows Jonathan around for the rest of the story, even to Japan, where he goes to take more pictures and where he falls in love with a Japanese girl named Kimiko. She helps him come to terms with the war, but he then connects with the soldier he’d photographed in Vietnam.

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Georgina Harding

Jonathan flees back to the farm in England, and tries to put the war behind him. But the reader senses that he will always be scarred by his brief time in the Vietnam War—and by his choice to take the photographs he took.

No novel I have read better describes how powerful the memory of war can become entrenched in the mind of a young man. I loved the book and how free of the usual clichés it was. John Wayne’s name, for one thing, is never mentioned.

This is a fresh imagining of the American war in Vietnam, and it is much needed.

Thank you, Georgina Harding, for this fine book. Buy it and read it.

—David Willson

Arizona Moon by J.M. Graham

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J. M. Graham enlisted in the U. S. Navy in 1965 and served as a corpsman in Vietnam with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in 1967. His novel Arizona Moon (Naval Institute Press, 320 pp., $29.95), tells an exciting combat story of three men whose lives are intertwined in Vietnam.

In the course of this well-written, involving Vietnam War in-country combat novel we get to know these three men well—Cpl. Raymond Strader, a Marine Corps squad leader who has just a few days left in his tour of duty; Lance Cp. Noche Gonshayee (Moon), an Apache warrior caught between two cultures; and the “enemy,” Truong Nghi, who is involved in a pre-Tet Offensive munitions transfer and who is a patriotic zealot.

Cpl. Strader has two days and a wakeup left in country when the helicopter he’s on goes down with Moon on board. They are taken captive by Truong Nghi and the three end up playing a game of cat and mouse in the Ong Tu Mountains. The NVA desperately tries to protect its cargo. The Marines, who never leave a comrade behind, try to retrieve their brothers-in-arms.

I agree that, as the cover claims, this novel is “compelling and relentless.” This is one of the best of the Marine Corps Vietnam War thrillers I’ve read, and I highly recommend it.

We get lots of cowboy and Indian imagery, a debunking of John Wayne, the myth of the Island of the Black Clap, much ham-and-motherfucker talk, rear echelon bashing, seeing of the elephant, and Iwo Jima references. ARVNs are bashed, too.

All the usual stuff, that is, plus an exciting thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat.

If you are looking for a Marine Corps thriller, make this your next one.

—David Willson