The Militarized Zone: What Did You Do in the Army, Grandpa? by Wayne E. Johnson

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Wayne E. Johnson was drafted in 1969 and spent two years serving in the U.S. Army. He is currently working on a prequel to his novel The Militarized Zone; What Did You Do in the Army, Grandpa? (Tradewinds, 302 pp. $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), which was published in November of 2016.

Will Jensen is the protagonist of this heavily biographical novel, which takes place mostly in Korea. Will is drafted and sent to serve his Army time in Seoul with 8th Army Headquarters in the MOS 71 H-30, personnel management specialist.  It took the author over forty years to figure out how to make a book out of notes he took during his Army service.

Johnson tells us that this is a work of fiction and that the characters are composites of real people he served with. He sprinkles some Korean words and phrases into the narrative, but explains most of them; others are easy to figure out.

Johnson tells us to look at the book “as you would M*A*S*H* and Good Morning, Vietnam.” All three, he says, “are based on real events, real people, somewhat embellished for entertainment value and continuity.”

I enjoyed The Militarized Zone and learned that serving in Korea during the Vietnam War was amazingly similar to serving in Vietnam at that same time. It was safer in Korea than in Vietnam, though. Bob Hope and Racquel Welch entertained the troops there, just as they did in Vietnam, so a Korean tour of duty had that going for it, too.

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Wayne E. Johnson

Johnson has written an honest and entertaining book about a subject that has not drawn a lot of attention: What were we up to in Korea during the Vietnam War? This interesting book answers that question and does so with humor and clarity. Jane Fonda gets a mention early on, but Bob Hope and Racquel Welch help balance that out.

—David Willson

The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

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Matthew Quick is best known for his big-selling 2008 novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, and the even bigger Hollywood movie it spawned in 2012. The book and film received generally positive reviews. More than one critic, however, has pointed out that the plot—about a young man overcoming mental illness—strains credibility (to the breaking point) and the characters bear little resemblance to real human beings.

In his new novel, The Reason You’re Alive (Harper, 240 pp., $25.99, Quick again deals with a main character with serious mental problems. The reason you’re reading this review on this web page is that the character is a Vietnam War veteran.  Said veteran is “an opinionated and good-hearted American patriot fighting like hell to stay true to his red, white and blue heart,” Quick’s publisher says, “even as the country he loves rapidly changes in ways he doesn’t always like or understand.”

There’s little doubt the guy (who narrates the story) is opinionated and patriotic. But good-hearted? I couldn’t get that word out of my mind as I read page after page after page of the veteran spouting anything but “good-hearted” words. For example, throughout the book he refers to Vietnamese as “gooks” and “little yellow” people. Doctors are “fucking moron[s] and nurses are “cold bitch[es].”

I guess some of this crude, offensive spouting off can be classified as “opinionated.” And I am sure there are people who agree with some or all of this. But why center a novel on a character who is a mean-spirted, bigoted, misogynist, racist boor?

Some reviewers (and the publisher) talk about the humor in the book. Perhaps some of this Archie-Bunker stuff tickles some people’s funny bones. But I didn’t find anything close to humor on one page of the novel.

Another distressing aspect of the book is Quick’s ultra-clichéd depiction of his central character. The guy is little more than a one-dimensional stereotype: a mentally unbalanced, cammie-wearing, gun-loving Nam vet haunted by the dozens of men, women, and children he offed in the war. How do we know this? Quick has the guy conveniently tell us that he and his buddies “did things you can’t even imagine” in Vietnam, killing maybe “hundreds of gooks,” many of them civilians, and “burning so many villages.”

Then there are the credibility-stretching plot details, including the fact that the narrator somehow amassed a fortune in the world of finance after the war and his best friend in a multi-billionaire. And that in Vietnam the guy is ordered to “break” a fellow grunt, an American Indian, who scalped dead enemy soldiers and kept them on his belt. He “breaks” the guy by humiliating him in front of the platoon, forcing him to crawl all but naked on the ground and pick up cigarette butts with his teeth.

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Mathew Quick

Spoiler alert: The book’s penultimate extended scene is another piece of preposterousness: a meeting arranged by the vet’s billionaire friend with the guy he “broke” at the latter’s mansion in Vegas. All goes swimmingly well—including what’s meant to be a shocking disclosure but is lamely predictable.

Before reading this book, I had thought that the tired, stereotypical image of the Vietnam veteran as a one-time merciless killing machine turned mentally damaged and violently dangerous was a thing of the past. Sad to say, its alive (and not well) in this book.

—Marc Leepson

Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis

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Raeford’s MVP (CreateSpace, 452 pp., 16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third Vietnam War-themed novel by Rick DeStefanis, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72.  We reviewed the previous books—Melody Hill and The Gomorrah Principle on these pages.

This book focuses on Billy Coker, who is 19 years old and erving in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the war. He left behind the love of his life, the chubby Bonnie Jo Parker, in Raeford, Mississippi. Bonnie happens to have an amazing voice and a pretty face, the way many big girls in small American towns do.  She gives him a good luck piece to wear. Spoiler alert: It does the trick.

When Billy arrives back home, he struggles with psychological problems and with connecting with his old friends. Some of his best friends make an effort to help him, a very good thing.

But the war becomes Billy’s life and he has a terrible problem shaking it off. The fog of battle gets a mention. So does John Wayne.  And Puff the Magic Dragon. Agent Orange is not ignored.

Billy finds a honkytonk that has an “old Son House tune on the jukebox.”  I would love to find that place. I’ve never encountered Son House on a jukebox.  Wilson Pickett sings “Land of a 1000 Dances,” and Jane Fonda gets kicked around years before she takes her trip to North Vietnam.

DeStefanis has written an honorable book that will hold most readers’ attention.

The author’s website is rickdestefanis.com

—David Willson

Abandoned: MIA in Vietnam by Bill Yancey

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Bill Yancey’s Abandoned: MIA in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 294 pp., $12.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a thriller and a medical mystery. Yancey served in the U.S. Navy, including a 1967-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War, and has an M.D. degree from the Medical College of Virginia.

This is the first Vietnam War book I’ve read that name checks Donald Trump. It includes an autographed picture of Trump posed in front of a yellow Mustang wearing asymmetrical wide black racing stripes. We are told that Trump bought this Shelby for his daughter.

I found the book extremely complex and hard to follow at first, but once I got involved in the story, I did a lot better. The main character, Dr. Addison Wolfe, comes across the name of an old Navy buddy named Byrnes in a newspaper and is “flabbergasted to read an attempted murder occurred in his name.”

Byrnes may have committed suicide; he may have been a victim of foul play. Or he may be a serial killer. Wolfe manages to shake loose from his chronic depression and begins to investigate what happened. In the less than 300 pages, as Dr. Wolfe gets to the bottom of the mystery, I was never tempted to give up on the book. It held my attention, and the ending was satisfactory to me.

I learned a lot about service on Vietnam War-era aircraft carriers. What’s more Yancey provides a huge amount of information without it ever becoming boring or irritating. That is a gift.

Bill Yancey has a point of view about the war–in a nutshell: “The North Vietnamese won.” He also believes the war was not necessary. Neither of those opinions caused any problems with the novel’s story or plot.

At the end of the book Yancey writes that he hopes that present-day politicians and diplomats are not setting up the world “for more unnecessary wars in the future.” I hope he didn’t hear the latest news about President Trump and North Korea, Syria, and China.

—David Willson

Shock Peace by CieCie Tuyet Nguyen

Ciecie Tuyet Nguyen was thirteen years old when she witnessed the events she bases her novel, Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom (Tate, 444 pp., $39.99, hardcover; $30.99, paper; $14.99, Kindle), on. Through the character of Trinh, she relives her memories of communist takeover of Saigon in 1975.

Why the author chose the title she did is a mystery to me. Reading the title, I figured that the novel would not be written in good English because the title makes little sense. But I was wrong; the novel is quite well written. There is the occasional jarring phrase such as “fresh as a cucumber” rather rather than “cool as a cucumber.”

A much better title would have been The Fall of Saigon through the Eyes of a Survivor.

Ciecie Nguyen continued to live in Saigon after April 1975 until her escape by boat to Australia with her family. Her mother arranged the escape and was the source of the family’s great strength through the horrors of the three years it took to get together the money and supplies necessary to leave Vietnam.

I’ve read many books about the so-called boat people and their brave attempts to get out of communist Vietnam, but none tells the story better than this novel. Nguyen reveals the barbarism of the North Vietnamese toward the South Vietnamese with an immediacy that hit home in a way that it never did before to me.

We get to know all the people involved in the escape, and we care about them and want them to get away from the horrors that have been brought down on them. They do make it and we learn about their lives after their escape.

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Learning English is the biggest challenge for the Vietnamese once they learn the social customs of Australia. There is a funny section in which the refuges struggle to figure out why the Australians who live above them are so angry at them when they cook their dinner.

For some reason, the Australians hate the smell of the fish sauce and the garlic. They terrorize the Vietnamese by screaming at them and pounding on their door when they cook. Of course, the refugees have no idea what they are doing wrong. And there is nobody to tell them.

The author graduated from pharmacy school and now owns her own pharmacy in the western suburbs of Sydney. My respect for the authors’ academic and career successes is huge.

—David Willson

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

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Jacqueline Woodson, who was born in 1963, is a prolific, award-winning author who specializes in books for children and young adults. Brown Girl Dreaming, her 2014 best-selling memoir, won a National Book Award. Woodson’s latest book, Another Brooklyn (Amistad, 192 pp., $22.99), is an adult novel with a strong sexual focus.

Much of it deals with what eight-year old August views of her neighborhood while caring for her little brother in Brooklyn in the 1970s. The scene from her third floor window often reminded me of the Hitchcock movie, Rear Window, both in tone and content.

August is befriended by three other neighborhood girls—Sylvia, Angela and Gigi—and the sexual tone intensifies. The main thrust of their conversations and concerns is the peril they are in due to their developing bodies and the unrest this causes in the men of all ages they who surround them.

The Vietnam War is often mentioned in this slender, dream-like book, and never in a positive way. One of Woodson’s most graphic images is of a returned veteran who is armless but who has taught himself how to shoot dope using his teeth.

“A man who used to be a boy on our block walked the streets in his Army uniform, armless,” August says. “My brother and I watched him from our window, watched his head dipping down like a bird tucking itself beneath its own wing.”

Wartime Vietnam is where the men who took advantage of the young girls went to die. The girls went south with their pregnancies, not to return. No mention of birth control is ever made in this book.

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Jacqueline Woodson

I could give many more examples of how the Vietnam War makes an appearance in this small book, but the one I described hits so hard, I will only offer only one other. “As the damage of the war staggered, strung-out and bleary eyed along our block, Miss Dora greeted every ex-soldier who passed,” Woodson writes. “Glad y’all made it home, she said. We’ll see my boy in the by and by.”

As a blurb on the back of the book by Ann Patchett puts it, this is a fever dream of a book. It’s probably not aimed at my demographic, but I couldn’t put it down.

Every page reeks with danger, and I found myself glad that I spent the early seventies in a very different place. Seattle had its problems, but African-American girls there were aware of birth control. I was a welfare caseworker then, so I know of what I speak.

—David Willson

There’s a Man with a Gun Over There by R.M. Ryan

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R. M. Ryan served in the U. S. Army from 1969-72. In his autobiographical novel There’s a Man with a Gun Over There (Permanent Press, 272 pp., $29, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) Sgt. Richard Ryan receives an Army Commendation Medal from the 42nd MP Group (Customs) for his work as a translator and black-market investigator in Germany in the early 1970s.

R.M. Ryan is the author of another novel, The Golden Rules, and two books of poetry. He dedicates this novel to Steven Unger, who died in November 2011, a “late casualty of the war in Vietnam.” No further explanation is given. I assume the reasons include PTSD or Agent Orange.

Richard Ryan, the novel’s protagonist, is an antiwar activist who receives his draft notice after the 1968 Tet Offensive. After deciding not to flee to Canada, he finds an Army recruiter who promises that he’ll get to learn German at the Defense Language School in Monterey, California. Ryan gets language school, but after he finishes he is sent to Military Police school.

He ends up working with former Nazis in Germany, arresting soldiers for black market activity, and avoiding the service in Vietnam that he wished to avoid. The old cliché “Be careful what you wish for” is in full play in this novel.

Even though Ryan never makes it to Vietnam, the novel is mostly about the Vietnam War. He dreams of Johnson Administration war hawk Walt Rostow, and discusses the importance of stopping the commies—containment, he calls it.

R.M. Ryan has produced a witty literary novel that held my attention throughout. I highly recommend it to readers seeking a serious novel about the Vietnam War. The way the book is organized seemed confusing at first, but it didn’t work out that way. The short, well-written scenes move right along.

RyannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnThe Army trains people to kill, and this novel does not mince words about that. The American military is dangerous. Country Joe and the Fish wrote a song about that, which is included in this book to great effect, along with much other American pop culture references.

Buy this book and give it to any high school student you know considering the military as a career option. At the very least he or she just may rethink that decision.

—David Willson