Some Rise by Sin by Philip Caputo

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The novelist Philip Caputo served as a Marine lieutenant in the Vietnam and is best known for his classic memoir, A Rumor of War, which was published in 1977 and has remained in print since then.  He’s written another Vietnam War novel, Indian Country, his latest book, Some Rise by Sin (Henry Holt, 352 pp., $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is set in the Mexican village of San Patricio beset by a war between a brutal drug cartel and the Mexican Army and the police.  It is often hard to tell who is who.

Padre Timothy Riordan is an American missionary priest who has been sent to Mexico more as a punishment than anything else. He buddies up with Lisette Moreno, an American doctor who ministers to the villagers’ health rather than their souls. Her lesbian love affair with artist Pamela Childress adds drama to her life in the village.

From the first page of this novel, the main characters seem headed for a cliff they must inevitably tumble over. It’s no surprise when a real cliff appears in the narrative. Padre Tim is the most tortured soul I’ve encountered in modern lit in a long, long time.

At first I thought that the references to the Vietnam War would be a leit motif that would continue throughout the novel, but I was wrong. Very early in the book we learn that Padre Tim had an elder brother, Sean, who had won a Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam. A few pages later we learn that Sean had come home from Vietnam with eyes coated “in a hard finish that had cracked, like old lacquer, allowing an underlying sorrow to bleed through.”

The next time we encounter Sean, he is paraphrased as saying this about the Vietnam War: “It was the place where you found out that you weren’t who you thought you were.”

Padre Tim is learning in Mexico that who he’d thought he was had been a lie fabricated out of pride. His struggle to figure out how and why an all-loving God allowed—and seemed to encourage—the existence of evil was fated to fail, and to bring down his work as a missionary.

There were no more references to the Vietnam War after that, other than a brief mention that the helicopters and piles of weapons in Vietnam continued to be used by police, soldiers, and drug traffickers.hires-philip-caputo-2017-by-michael-priest-photography-1

The rest of the novel is held together by the suffering of Padre Tim.  Caputo portrays Tim’s suffering every bit as well as Graham Greene would have done were Tim a whiskey priest.   Caputo tells a powerful story in this novel, so powerful that I believed every word of it and figured that he based this narrative on actual events in Mexico.

I highly recommend this new novel by this master story teller who has honed his gift for many decades and is totally on his game in this book.

The author’s website is http://www.philipcaputo.com/

—David Willson

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The Jake Fischer Stories by Stewart Bird

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Stewart Bird, the author of The Jake Fischer Stories (Dog Ear Publishing, 176 pp., $12.97, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novelist (Murder at the Yeshiva), a TV documentary writer/producer (The Wobblies, Coming Home, et al.), and a member of Vietnam Veterans of America.  I suspect his military history is similar to that of the stories’ protagonist, Jack Fischer.

Bird has produced a baker’s dozen of short stories of varying lengths with the protagonist Jake Fischer, as the title indicates.  Jake is drafted into the Army and ends up as a psychiatric social worker at the Michigan Army Hospital during the Vietnam War.

Some of the titles of the stories are:  “Basic,” “The  War at Home,” “Coming Home,” and “Chicago 68.” The stories reflect the titles. All are interesting and well-written. “Basic” takes place in the fall of 1965 at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn and then moves to Fort Dix in New Jersey. “They took everyone with a heartbeat,” Bird writes.

The story “War at Home” is mostly about drugs. Bird refers to Robert S. MacNamara as “the systems analyst who planned and ran the Vietnam War:  The face of death.” He certainly captures my feelings about the man.

The reader gets references to LBJ and how many kid he killed today, as well as to Scarface, Full Metal Jacket, Ron Kovic, Bob Dylan, Catch-22, and President Nixon looking like a cattle rustler in a John Ford Western. There is a lot of wit and some humor in these serious literary stories. I enjoyed all of them.

I highly recommend this collection of short stories to anyone who wishes to read finely written short fiction about the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.stewartbird.net/the_jake_fischer_stories_125234.htmu

—David Willson

Primary Candidates by Mike Sutton

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Mike Sutton’s experiences in the Vietnam War are the basis for his first novel, No Survivors (2004). Henry Small Deer was a primary character in No Survivors and returns in Primary Candidates (War Zone Press, 308 pp., $35.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper) as an authority on armaments.  All of the characters of Sutton’s second novel, High Order (2009), also have returned. The author informs us that the novel is inspired by historical events.

As the title implies, this novel is about politicians who want to be president. Three senators are featured doing what senators do when they think they should have their party’s nomination to the nation’s highest office.

The poisonous worm in this political apple is a shipment of Stinger missiles from Arizona to Fort Hood, Texas. At this point the book becomes a hijack novel in which law enforcement agencies scramble to retrieve the missiles and kill the hijacking criminals. Something serious always goes wrong in a scenario of this sort. If it doesn’t, there is no story to hold our attention.

Detective Hunter Morgan is one of the law enforcement people who goes after the missiles. Naturally, he did three tours in Vietnam. One is never enough for a character of this sort. He’s a glutton for punishment.

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Mike Sutton

Many more things go awry in this thriller: snipers in Baltimore, railroad catastrophes, terrorist strikes on major American airports. Then one of the senators “turns up missing.”  That’s one of my favorite all-time clichés.

This book is a rouser, though. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy thrillers and to those who enjoyed Sutton’s previous novels.

Sutton, a witty author, also provides my favorite Jane Fonda quote out of many hundreds I’ve read in Vietnam War books. In this case the words come from a senator speaking to the President:

“Jane Fonda,” the senator says, “has a better chance of becoming the National Commander of the Vietnam Veterans of America than the Desert Fox does winning in November.” This caught me by surprise so late in the book, and caused me to laugh aloud, something I rarely do when I read Vietnam War thrillers.  Congrats to Sutton for his wit and wisdom.

—David Willson

The Sorceress of Menlo Park by Richard Sloan

Richard Sloan served in the Marine Corps from 1966-69, including a 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War. In his novel, The Sorceress of Menlo Park (Amazon Digital Services, 398 pp., $5.99, Kindle), the title character’s father is a captain in the Marine Corps who was stationed near Oakland doing intelligence debriefings of returning personnel from Vietnam shortly after his own tour ended.

The plot centers around the title character, Joanne, whose high school history teacher pale when the Vietnam War was mentioned in history class, and did not permit her to do a history project on the war. Joanne was conceived when her father met up with her mother in Hawaii on R&R. She is a genius who is considered to be “a barbarian invading the fortress” by the establishment, as she is developing a microchip to be inserted into the brain to cure a neuro-muscular disease called Nivlem’s Syndrome.

Joanne also is a marketing genius who has fashioned herself into “a Big Breasted Bad Girl” whose images sell millions of dollars worth of clothes and perfume. But she also has an impeccable record of helping the downtrodden, including veterans with PTSD. She works with them in clay therapy at the VA Hospital in Menlo Park.

The villain in this novel, the Reverend Turner Byrne, uses Joanne’s near-naked marketing ploys as weapons against her. She warns the Reverend Byrne that she is a confirmed Lutheran and a goddess who can spit fire at those who dare to go against her. She accomplishes the fire spitting through muscle control.

There are many references to the Vietnam War throughout this novel, which sometimes reads like a term paper for a high-level graduate course in business. Twice a particularly loathsome minor character spits out the epithet “baby killer” when Vietnam veterans are a topic. I believe is it is she who also says: “Every Vietnam veteran is a psychotic.”

There’s a visit to the Wall in Washington, and there’s a long speech in which Joanne’s father: “The irony is that while the country called on us to defend it, those who did answer that call were the ones scorned and treated with contempt for that very reason.”

This reader asked himself how a 23-year-old woman who is happy with the image of herself as a “Big Breasted Bad Girl” and serves cookies to wounded veterans can subject herself to a ranting Reverend Byrne. Especially when she is a goddess who can spit fire. It seems unlikely.

But I’ll leave it to other readers to decide.

—David Willson

The Bangkok Asset by John Burdett

Sometimes fiction is stranger than truth. That’s certainly the case in John Burdett’s latest thriller, The Bangkok Asset (Knopf, 307 pp., $25.95).

This sixth novel in the series featuring the Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep—the son of a former Bangkok bar girl and a Vietnam War American GI—like its predecessors is compulsively readable, evokes the Thai capital and Thai culture splendidly, and has a convoluted but clever, over-the-top plot that comes extremely close to straining credibility.

Said plot: As a result of a forty-year effort by the CIA, the Chinese and Russians (don’t ask) are about to create a race of super humans who will soon take over the world. These “enhanced” human beings have been bred using a group of former American servicemen stowed away in the jungles of Cambodia after the war in Vietnam. Huge amounts of LSD were involved, along with 22nd century technological advances in human engineering.

The savvy, emotionally jittery Jitpleecheep gets enmeshed in this whole phantasmagoric business after he starts investigating a gruesome murder in which the killer leaves an incriminating clue linking him in the crime. Then things get really crazy.

An important part of the plot involves Jitplecheep’s longtime quest to find his biological father. In fact, Burdett goes into more detail on the Vietnam War and its veterans in this book than he has in any of the five previous Bangkok novels. That includes Vulture Peak, the previous one, which appeared in 2012, and the excellent first novel in the series, Bangkok 8 (2006).

We get more information on Jitplecheep’s father than ever before, including lots of details about his war and postwar experiences. To say any more would spoil things for those who read this entertaining book, which features vividly drawn characters enmeshed in crazy and portentous goings-on.

I had a small problem with the ending. Why? Let’s just say Burdett doesn’t exactly have things turn out happily ever after.

—Marc Leepson

Blacktop, No Map by Roy Eisenstein

I read Roy Eisenstein’s novella, Blacktop, No Map (Amazon Digital Services, 47 pp, $4.99, Kindle), on my Kindle in one sitting. The author served with the 1st Signal Brigade in 1968-69; his main character is a Vietnam veteran who has PTSD.

The plot of this “on the road” story is that the main character is driving from the West Coast to return to the city of his origin, New York City. His companion is a young woman who would go anywhere with him under any circumstances. If I made this into a movie, I would cast Humphrey Bogart and the young Lauren Bacall in the main roles.

The couple uses a variety of cheap cars since they keep breaking down. They stay in a string of cheap motels and eat in cheap roadside restaurants. In one of these dives our hero gets into a knock-down, drag-out fight with “a pinhead who has a hair up his ass.”  The hero wins the fight, but only barely. He is beaten badly enough that the young woman has to drive for a while.

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The writing in this breathless amalgam of a road novella and film noire script is fun to read. I’ll bet it was fun to write, too.

When his car blows a front tire, “the banging rhythm reminds me of Huey Cobras coming in to evac us from a firefight in the bush where life was so goddamn cheap.”

Eisenstein offers up such expressions as “a world gone mad,” “shallow lakes of love,” night road towards forever,” “morning comes up hot and angry,” and “Kamikaze insects explode on the windshield in Jackson Pollack-Rorshach sacrifices.”  This is just a small sample of the language in the book. I enjoyed them in the spirit they were offered.

The novella is sprinkled with references to the Vietnam War. They all passed muster. Some that stood out: “I woke up from another night in the rice paddies,”  “the damp rice paddies of my soul.”  Also: “a guy named Hank who has a VC scar and a platoon of dead brothers.”

No false notes in this book tarnished the relentless forward thrust of the narrative, and I enjoyed it mightily. I highly recommend this story to those who want to enjoy an afternoon in the sunshine with a cold drink, reading something to take their mind off their troubles and propel them into a world with a tough but sensitive hero and a beautiful younger woman who adores him and asks no questions about where they are bound and why.

I’ve been there; I totally get the appeal of such a story.

—David Willson

War Without End, Amen By Tim Coder

Tim Coder served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1969-70 as an infantry squad leader and later with the 1st Battalion/3rd Brigade Information Office. War Without End, Amen: A Vietnam Story (CreateSpace, 518 pp., $18.99, paper; $$4.99, Kindle) is his first novel. It is not based on a true story. As the author says, “The people and the events in this book are products of the author’s imagination.”  

War Without End is a complex, well-written novel which goes back and forth between present-day America and war-time South Vietnam.

The character who links the past and the present is a ghost named Private Myron Senger. He died in Vietnam and since then has wandered there in the boonies “fighting gooks” stuck in a sort of purgatory.  “Wanna,” Senger whines constantly, both when he is alive and when he is a ghost.

“I’m too short for this,” he says at least a thousand times.  The “wanna” refers to his most-often whining plea to be assigned a job in the rear.

We are told that “it all started with Senger forgetting to pack a new radio battery.” He was the RTO, after insisting on being replaced as the point man because he was too short for that. He was also obsessed with not dying a virgin. That obsession is what led to forgetting the radio battery when his squad went out into the boonies at the behest of the colonel.

Tim Coder

This main point of the book is well distilled by the old saying that my Marine Corps father repeated over and over when I was a kid: “For want of the nail, the shoe was lost. For want of the shoe, the horse was lost,” and so on.  If there is a single point in this he novel, that could be it.

Senger’s lapse with the spare battery leads to the squad wandering in the wilderness of I Corps near the A Shau Valley for what seems like forever with “puny rations and no reliable source of water.” The events of that episode in their lives mark the two survivors for the rest of their miserable lives.

A Vietnam War literature rarity in this section is the introduction of an important Vietnamese character, Private Phong, an enemy deserter who we spend a lot of time with and who speaks increasingly good English. This section goes on a bit long, but is my favorite part of the book.

This novel is so huge and encompasses so much that I can’t begin to tell all that it contains, but I will attempt to give some of the flavor. ARVN troops are referred to as “worthless lousy ARVNs” and as “coward bastards.” A body count-obsessed colonel personifies the “lifers [who] order something dumb and everyone just goes along and follows the dumb-ass orders. Then people die.”

There are burning shit barrels sizzling in the rain, many references to peace demonstrators back home chanting “baby killers,”  C-rats (but no ham and limas), leeches, dinks, slopeheads, gooks, fragging, cutting off VC ears for trophies, cherry LT’s, the Domino Theory, Zippos, and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”  Not to mention,“It’s the only war we got.”   Also there are a slew of oddly named grunts: Christmas, Snake Eyes, Rosy, Ruby, Wanna, The Assassin, and The Jackal.

This is a novel with a strong moral conscience, expressed often by Murphy, the main character, who says, “Most every grunt scorned hardcore remfs. But most at one time or another would have sold their OD souls to be one.”

There it is.

—David Willson