em by Kim Thuy

Kim Thuy’s em (Seven Stories Press, 160 pp. $21.95) is a poetically written short novel focusing on the heart of the Vietnamese people. The one-word title refers, Kim Thuy says, “to the little brother or little sister in a [Vietnamese] family; or the younger of two friends; or the woman in a couple. I like to think that the word em is the homonym of the verb aimer, ‘to love,’ in French.” The novel is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

Kim Thuy and I arrived in South Vietnam in the same year. Her mother gave birth to her in Saigon in 1968. At just about the same time I landed at nearby Binh Hoa to start my tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Thuy left Vietnam with her family following the communist takeover and now lives in Quebec in Canada.

She says that she writes true stories “incompletely told,” in which “truth is fragmented,” and that our hearts may shudder while reading them. Her new book’s first sentence is, “War, again.” As you read on, you can’t help but mourn for the children of Vietnam: those who were orphaned, those who never knew their American fathers, and all of those who suffered as a result of the war.

We read how French rubber tree plantation managers were forced to negotiate with Americans about the number of trees to cut down to clear the way for vehicles to pass through. In exchange, they were promised protection against U.S. bombs and defoliants.

Thuy writes that combat zones “were likely the only places where human beings became equal to each other through their mutual annihilation.” We read of a young girl carried away from violence and danger by her nanny yet, “Like a cut flower, her childhood faded before it had bloomed.”

We witness the horror of the My Lai massacre. “No one suspected that they were going to set fire to the huts while shooting their weapons with the same eagerness at chickens and humans.” For some involved, “Time would recede, become virgin again, and would begin anew at the origin of the world.” A survivor is unable to remember faces because, “maybe war machines don’t have a human face.”

There is a brief love affair, but even love is orphaned following an accidental death. There are orphans who become prostitutes out of necessity. A young boy with an American father is as completely orphaned as a child can be since he doesn’t even have a name. There are “child-adults.” There are orphans who find other abandoned orphans and bond with them.

We witness the immolation of monks. We watch as Operation Babylift takes thousands of orphans away from the war-torn country. But even there we witness tragedy as the first plane explodes in the air. We watch as the city of Saigon falls to the communists in 1975. And then when it looks like everything has ended, the long-term effects of Agent Orange remain. Always—and still—there is Agent Orange.

In the chapter titled “Points of View,” Thuy writes: “The Americans speak of the ‘Vietnam War,’ the Vietnamese of the ‘American War.’ The distinction is perhaps what explains the cause of that war.”

Kim Thuy ends her unforgettable, softly told story with a reminder that all Vietnamese people, “no matter where they live, descend from a love story between a woman of the immortal race of faeries and a man of the blood of dragons.”  

–Bill McCloud

Landing Zone by Carlos Arce

Carlos Arce, the author of the multi-volume Landing Zone (983 pp. HEDSA Publishing, Kindle), describes the work as an “illustrated serial-novel about the Vietnam War written by a disabled combat infantry veteran who served in the war during 1969-1970.” The novel is divided into seven volumes with 41 chapters and tells Arce’s substantially autobiographical story. While they are tied together, Arce says that each chapter is also intended to stand as its own story.

What sets this novel apart is the inclusion of 642 photographs, drawings, and graphs pulled from the Internet. The illustrations give the novel an encyclopedic nature. When Arce mentions a weapon in his story you can be sure you’ll see a picture of it on the next page. Same with Agent Orange, snakes, and other Vietnam War things he encountered in Vietnam.

In Volume 1: The Beginning (which we reviewed in these pages in 2016), main character George Vida knows what’s in store when he receives orders to report to Oakland, California, in July 1969. He says he felt “afraid to be afraid.” He had enjoyed his Army training, though, and thought it was “fun” to shoot an M-16 in fully automatic mode and to jump out of airplanes. After his arrival in South Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut, the air base the base comes under rocket attack. Vida is knocked to the ground and a guy he had made friends with on the plane is killed.

He’s assigned to the First Air Cavalry Division and is sent to another reception center where he says he received “a crash course on how to go to war.” He’s told to not trust any Vietnamese and quickly realizes that just about everything around him is an extreme threat. He doesn’t feel better when he’s told he’ll be spending most of his time in the jungle.

In Volume 2: The Shock, Vida’s sent out into the field and it’s not long before he sees engages in hand-to-hand fighting with an enemy soldier that involves the two of them biting each other. He casually notes that in hand-to-hand fighting Americans have an edge because of their larger stature.

In Volume 3: Survival, Vida finds himself aboard a helicopter with two uncooperative Vietnamese prisoners. He watches in horror as one of them is thrown out. That’s an awful lot of action for one guy to have experienced in such a relatively short period of time. Arce addresses that by saying the story is based on things he saw and experienced, as well as things other soldiers told him.

One thing that’s similar to many other Vietnam War stories is that the moment Vida meets an Army nurse she is immediately attracted to him.

Volume 4: Resignation finds Vida enjoying his R&R in Bangkok. The three remaining volumes get us back into action, along with ruminations about what the war was really all about. Arce provides a brief history of the war, talks about why the U.S. did not succeed, and goes over our overall military strategy.  

The concluding volume has Vida returning home in mid-1970. We then read, decades after his service, about his feelings about the antiwar movement, the use of Agent Orange, and present-day veteran suicides.

With its illustrations, stories, and historic information, this book is a one-stop shop, especially for those with little knowledge about the Vietnam War.

Carlos Arce concludes this book, which was a labor of love for him, by saying: “I will struggle with my memories and the pain that will always be there, but I was proud then and I am proud now. I was an American soldier and I did what I had to do.”

–Bill McCloud

Sunshine Blues by Bob Calverley

In his new novel, Sunshine Blues (526 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), Bob Calverley tells two stories that are not really all that connected —except for the fact that they take place at the same time. Calverley was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1967 and served a 1968-69 tour in Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh.

Sunshine Blues, his third novel, is set in 1968. Half of it centers on Jimmy Hayes, a crew chief in an Army assault helicopter company. While he’s half-way through his tou, his sixteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, Gloria Doran in Detroit experiences a trauma-causing incident and then discovers that her life is being threatened. Plus, Gloria still has whip marks on her back she received at the hands of her evil stepfather. She experiences PTSD every bit as much as her boyfriend will.

Gloria witnessed two deaths in Detroit while men were mysteriously dying around Jimmy in South Vietnam. While coming to the end of a difficult pregnancy, Gloria learns that Jimmy is missing after surviving a helicopter crash that killed three other men. She doesn’t know that he’s been captured by some sort of Vietnamese militia unit and taken deep into a tunnel complex where he will be put on trial for murdering Vietnamese civilians.

Bob Calverley in country

That scene comes off as a surreal incident that works well, especially when you consider many of the bizarre aspects of the American war in Vietnam.

Calverley says stories he heard at reunions of his Vietnam War unit are in the novel, though he admits that “Year after year the stories keep getting better. The line between fact and fiction blurs with the passage of time. Or maybe it’s the consumption of the adult beverages.”

The novel includes a maniac who likes to chop off fingers, arson, child abuse, drug trafficking, flight crew fatigue, illegal nightclubs, money laundering, murder, organized crime, police abuse, sabotage, suicide, and international sex trafficking. It’s divided into more than sixty short chapters that keep the action moving—and moving around. At one point three consecutive chapters are entitled “Cu Chi,” “Detroit,” and “Nui Binh.” Plus, each story could stand alone if told separately.

All of which makes Sunshine Blues an unusual book. I found the sections on Jimmy’s Vietnam War experiences to be quite intriguing—and the strongest part of the novel.  

The author’s website is bobcalverley.com/sunshine-blues

–Bill McCloud

Incident at Dak To by Louis Edward Rosas

Incident at Dak To (257 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Louis Edward Rosas is a very enjoyable military-procedural science fiction story that brings to mind pulp novels of the Vietnam War era. If this book had been serialized in a monthly science fiction magazine 50 years ago it would have been well received.

In the book, we learn that Army Capt. Jay Swift wrote his Vietnam War story in a pocket journal in 1967, making it possible for him to relate it to us today. Swift and his buddy Fred Mason apparently worked for the CIA in Vietnam. They experienced combat in the war and still occasionally wore their Army uniforms, but mainly worked in civilian clothes. When asked what they did they said, “We are field analysts.” Their official job was to “locate and acquire exotic foreign technologies,” meaning things the Soviets and Chinese may have been ahead of the U.S. on, with the goal of reverse-engineering the stuff to our nation’s advantage.

They get called off an assignment in the Middle East to go to Vietnam to investigate an object of unknown origin that’s been recovered from a crash site near Dak To. The site, Rosas writes, “is smack in the middle of an enemy tunnel complex that was nearly overrun by combined NVA and Viet Cong forces. Whatever crashed there is of deep interest to them.” The recovered object was placed in a supposedly secure vault in the basement at the American Embassy, but then disappeared.

There had been reports of a fast-moving aircraft that “appeared as a glowing light in the night sky.” The object seemed to carry a “radiation signature,” and Swift’s initial thinking was that his assignment probably didn’t have anything to do with the war, and that whatever the object was had just dropped into the war zone. The two men are put up in an air-conditioned room with bulletproof windows in Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel where they worked day and night trying to get to the bottom of the mystery object.

The fun kicks in when Swift is told of “a blue-white fireball,” a “large impact crater,” a weird fog that suddenly appeared, and M16s that were strangely disabled. Then come missing witnesses, dissolving bullets, and encounters with Men in Black who walk through walls and always seem to be one step ahead of Swift and Mason.

This fast-moving story is told sometimes in third person, other times in first person, in cinematic-like form. Louis Edward Rosas, whose father served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, never gets in the way of his storytelling as he takes the reader on a wild ride.

–Bill McCloud

Red, White, & Blue by Michael Dean Moomey

Michael Dean Moomey’s novel, Red, White & Blue: Life of a Warrior (Archway Publishing, 250 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle), is a wild look at one man’s adventurous life in the Vietnam War and later working for the FBI and CIA. Moomey, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in the U.S. Navy during the war. He says this novel was inspired by actual events.

In the opposite of what you might expect, main character Jake Lewis’ mother pushes him to join the Navy at age 17 to get him out of the house and away from his abusive, alcoholic, World War II-vet father. He is sent to the Philippines to catch his ship where he starts off on the deck-cleaning crew before being moved to loading gun mounts, then later serves as a helmsman on the bridge.

Jake undergoes Special Warfare Training after that, and then takes part in top-secret rescue missions in Vietnam in which he engages in close-combat action. One involves a POW camp in Cambodia run by the Viet Cong. During the 1968 Tet Offensive he volunteers to go to Khe Sanh during the siege. When he and a few buddies take a week of R&R in Taiwan, they get into a bar fight so big they are expelled from the country.

Jake then volunteers to join a team trying to rescue the crew of the USS Pueblo, which was captured by North Korea. Then he works with the CIA on a covert operation in Thailand. He’s a senior Studies and Observations Group (SOG) team leader when he begins his third year in Vietnam by re-enlisting and taking part in action in Laos.

If you’re think I’ve revealed the book’s entire plot, think again. What I’ve described here takes place is less than half the book. Jake later goes to work for the FBI and then the CIA. Moomey ends the book with Jake writing: “Well, you’ve heard all of my adventures.”

Michael Dean Moomey writes in a conversational, readable manner. Reading his look is like listening to someone telling you a story—and you hanging on every word. The story is told in a hypnotic fashion that keeps pulling you in.

Red, White & Blue is a great read.

The author’s website is michaeldeanmoomey.com

–Bill McCloud

In the Year of the Rabbit by Terence A. Harkin

Terrence A. Harkin’s new novel, In the Year of the Rabbit (Silkworm Books, 316 pp., paper ), is the sequel to his critically acclaimed The Big Buddha Bicycle Race, but Rabbit is a profound and compelling novel in its own right.

The story opens with Harkin’s Brendan Leary, an American cameraman and self-proclaimed pacifist, entering a hospital following a terrorist attack on the bicycle race he organized.. Though Leary is in dire need of rest, Harkin—a member of Vietnam Veterans of America who served in a USAF photo unit at Ubon RTAB during the Vietnam War—pushes him straight into action in the form of an epic journey through Thailand and Laos alongside wise-cracking door gunner Harley Baker.

Together, Leary and Baker encounter college rock bands, North Vietnamese armed vehicles, and Buddhist monasteries. Though he tries to put the past behind him, Leary is haunted by the memory of his former girlfriend Tukada and the violence he has inflicted in the war. Ultimately, Leary chooses to remain in Asia and become a Buddhist monk.

Much of the novel’s interest comes from the unique relationship between Baker and Leary, which is at once loving and tense. The men view the world in ways that are fundamentally incompatible: Baker is, in his own words, “a gunner and a bomb loader” who likes combat and “that nasty feeling—those butterflies in my belly.” Leary is an introspective pacifist. Yet the men bond through their shared experiences in the war.

At times, both characters verge on clichéd embodiments of their philosophies. But their differences still made this reader ponder the nature of violence and nationalism. Also on the plus side, the book contains many moments of humor and lightness. Baker’s droll callousness is reminiscent of characters in the movie and TV series M.A.S.H. Not coincidentally, Harkin was a cameraman for that famed TV show, among many others.

At its heart, In the Year of the Rabbit is the story of a man’s journey to find peace in a chaotic and violent world. The thoughtfulness and careful prose of In the Year of the Rabbit make Terry Harkin’s second novel a thoroughly worthwhile read.

The author’s website is taharkin.net

–Meg Bywater

Warriors and Friends by Jim Hasse

Jim Hasse’s Warriors and Friends: Through the Eyes of His Alter-Ego, a Green Beret Unlocks Forbidden Memories of Vietnam on His Path to Healing (296 pp. $11.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is billed as a collection of 38 short stories. For the most part, though, it reads like a novel divided into 38 chapters. Hasse describes his book as a memoir written in the form of “creative non-fiction” because it’s a fictional retelling of events that really happened. Warriors and Friends is a really fine book, though, whether it’s a creative nonfiction, a novel or a group of short stories.

Hasse spent two years on the ground in Vietnam as a Green Beret sergeant. He later made a career in law enforcement. In the book Hasse’s alter ego is Jay Boone Hanson. In 1965 Hanson is in college listening to a stern professor challenging the males in class to consider what they’re going to do with their lives. What Hanson does is drop out of school and join the Army. The professor is the only person in the book to come across as a caricature. He is reminiscent of the schoolmaster, Kantorek, in All Quiet on the Western Front, who encourages his young students to join the German army.

I bonded early on with Hanson when he went through three months of training at Fort Gordon to become a Communication Center Specialist. I had that same training and, also like me, he would not work very long in that MOS. He makes an unsuccessful stab at Officer Candidate School and then goes through Special Forces training at Fort Bragg before arriving in Vietnam in January 1967.

“I believe I have always had the warrior spirit,” Hanson says, and he sees plenty of action in Vietnam in firefights, ambushes, and raucous nights back at the club. He’s issued large amounts of amphetamines to help him stay awake in the field and serves with a Sergeant First Class who, when in the rear, begins some of his mornings with two double Scotches mixed with buttermilk.

Hanson encounters a Vietnamese orphanage, Montagnard tribesmen, and an atrocity is committed by an American. Many people we read about in the book end up being killed. “The constant presence of death,” Hanson says, “stunned me into appreciating life.”

Once he’s home in Illinois out of the Army and dealing with ex-wives and PTSD, Hanson takes comfort in a companion dog while taking part in therapy groups for war veterans and finding a creative outlet in a veteran writers group.

Hanson says he was “devastated” when he “had to leave combat, Vietnam, and the military.” Later he recalls: “In the past fifty-two years I have thought of Vietnam every day, many times a day, and I am back there again on nights too numerous to count.”

Jim Hasse does a great job telling this story in a way that keeps the reader engaged. Now that I think about it, the idea of making the book’s chapters into short stories works.

–Bill McCloud

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