If You Walk Long Enough by Nancy Hartney

Nancy Hartney’s new novel, If You Walk Long Enough (Wild Rose Press, 282 pp. $16.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), centers on returning war veterans and the loved ones they are returning to.

Main character Reid Holcombe is on his way home to Beaufort, South Carolina, after a couple of tours in the Vietnam War and the completion of his military service. He takes his time getting home. He winds up hanging out in airports because he’s in no hurry to return to his estranged wife and the family tobacco farm that his sister runs. Mainly, he’s just not sure what he wants to do.

When Reid finally calls his wife, she says, “Come home. I need to make sure you’re not a ghost.” She also says she’s concerned because she can no longer picture him or “smell his essence.”

But instead of returning to the house he shares with his wife, Reid decides to move into a nearby family farm and go to work helping his sister get the tobacco in. Still, he’s not happy about getting back to the fields; he’d joined the Army because he saw it as his ticket off the farm. His sister tells him she knows he didn’t write home because of all the stuff he was dealing with, but then tells him: “Hard stuff happened here, too.”

Hartney writes that even though Reid was far away from the war, he “ate fast, gobbling before the next mortar round hit.” He learns that Big Tobacco companies are trying to squeeze out small farms. At the same time, his neighbors—a Black family whose son also served during the war—are facing increasingly serious racial harassment. Reid begins thinking of South Carolina and Vietnam as “two places, different and the same.”

He continues to stay away from his wife, considering himself to be divorced in all but the strictly legal sense. For her part, Hartney writes, his wife sometimes “wished him dead in Vietnam—only to wither from guilt at the thought.” She also flirted with having a relationship while he was gone, while he has his own wartime secret.

Nancy Hartney

Feeling a sense of crushing guilt from what he did in Vietnam and the secret he still carries from it—while at the same time wrestling with new relationships with family and neighbors—Reid finds himself fighting Big Tobacco and the sickening racism he had not faced before going to Vietnam.

The book is divided into 62 short chapters with most of the story taking place in 1970. Hartney’s novel expresses beautifully the reality of veterans returning home from Vietnam to a world that had not stood still while they were gone. 

(Full disclosure: I am thanked on the Acknowledgments section of this book based on a few conversations I had with the author and my early reading of the manuscript.)

Hartney’s website is https://nancyhartney.com/

–Bill McCloud

Kurt Langer: Nemesis of Terror by Geoff Widders

Geoff Widders’ Kurt Langer: Nemesis of Terror (313 pp. $11.91, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction that tells the amazing story of Kurt Langer through the eyes of the main character, Jimmy Greer. Like old pulp novels, this book it tells a tale of a larger-than-life hero in an exaggerated manner.

As a reminder, Geoff Widders is the author, Kurt Langer the hero, and Jimmy Greer tells the story.

In 1968, Langer is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. For two years, he tries to stay sane by singing a Creedence Clearwater Revival song to himself that he remembers from basic training. A tiny bit of research reveals that that’s not possible, though, because that song was released in late 1970.

Langer frequently fantasizes about escaping. But each morning, Widders writes, he wakes up “from the world of nightmare into a nightmarish world.”

Finally, his chance to escape comes when a female VC falls for him. She realizes that something sets Langer apart from the other men. In a way, it was as if he is “other-worldly.” We learn that Langer becomes “a legend” the night he and the woman escape, then later directs an assault on the POW camp resulting in the release of all of his fellow captives.

We now move to 1976 and learn a little of narrator Jimmy Greer’s background, including how he wound up in Turkey where he met a beautiful older woman who reminds him of a Rider Haggard action-adventure-novel heroine. They hook up and then he is forced to go on the run with a different woman. That’s when he runs into the legendary Langer. After learning only that Langer had served in the Vietnam War, Greer thinks: “This guy may have killed tens or even hundreds of the enemy.”

Greer goes on to describe Langer as a man with “a classic thousand-yard stare,” the kind of guy who was “able to parachute, alone, into enemy territory” and “had seen events and had experiences that we should not see or feel.” Widders adds that Langer’s experiences in the war sent him “loop-de-loop.” On the other hand, he portrays Langer as the kind of guy who makes people braver just by being around him.

Geoff Widders

Moving again into the future we learn that Langer gets involved in a criminal act and is incarcerated for decades. Once he’s released, it’s just in time for him for the 74-year-old Vietnam vet to shut down a gigantic planned Islamic attack on San Francisco.

Once that was resolved, Widders writes, “The whole world came to know the name Kurt Langer.”

This is a pulp adventure with a larger-than-life hero and lots of exaggeration. When writing about a murder, for example, Widders mentions that there are “tens of thousands of homicides each year in California,” when, in fact, there’s only been one year that reached 4,000.

So, perhaps it’s best while reading this book to think of it as a story set in an alternate place and time. That way it works pretty well.

–Bill McCloud

Elsewhere Than Vietnam by David Schwartz

Elsewhere Than Vietnam: A Story of the Sixties (261 pp. Sticky Earth, $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a quite enjoyable novel. The author, David Schwartz, served as a U.S. Army Czech language intelligence interrogator in Germany from 1969-72. The title comes from a 1971 Armed Forces Journal article by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. in which he wrote that the morale of U.S. troops in Vietnam was lower “than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” The colonel then added: “Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.”

It’s the “elsewhere” that this story is concerned with, mainly antiwar protests on college campuses and underground resistance in the active-duty military, both in the U.S. and on bases abroad.

Schwartz’s main character Steven Miller is a student at Yale University in 1968 and, along with all the other young men on campus and around the nation, he finds that he is constantly thinking about the military draft.

“We knew the war was wrong,” we learn from Miller, “and we didn’t want to be involved in it.” Before long, though, he loses his student deferment and receives a draft classification of I-A, fit for service. “Fit to shoot people,” Miller thinks, “and fit to be shot at in return, simply because their ideas were not our ideas.” He begins attending meetings on resisting the draft. And then he gets a letter to report for induction.

Miller realizes he’s not brave enough to flee to Canada and wonders if his new girlfriend will wait for him for a couple of years. At Fort Dix he passes the stockade and hears another GI say, “The Army had to invent something worse than Vietnam to get people to go there.”

He begins “learning how to soldier. The soldier was the opposite of the student. The student should engage in critical thinking; the soldier should not question what he is told.” Miller’s goal is to avoid being sent to Vietnam. So he agrees to extend his service time a year in exchange for being sent to the Army’s Czech language school. Whenever possible, he goes off base to a local coffeehouse, the headquarters of a local radical newspaper and the scene of frequent antiwar discussions.

Miller graduates from language school and is sent to Fort Holabird in Baltimore for interrogation training. Here he learns that “it is a misconception that you need a cruel streak to excel as an interrogator. You just need to be a good actor.” Nothing is said about physical torture.

Miller’s then shipped to Germany where he works on developing intelligence reports. A German girl tells him that Americans are always immediately recognizable because they “all walk around loose and relaxed, like cowboys.” He continues to lead a double life: being a good soldier on-base while getting involved in resistance activities outside the gates.

The subtitle, A Story of the Sixties, is certainly accurate and everything in this novel rings true. This is a book about an honorable, conflicted man who gives his body and mind to the military, but not his heart and soul. It is a good story about a good man.

–Bill McCloud

Snow in Seattle by Amy M. Le

snowinseattle

Amy M. Le’s Snow in Seattle (Quill Hawk Publishing, 262 pp. $16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), hardcover; ) is a work of fiction based on a true story that continues the tale she began in her very enjoyable debut novel, Snow in Vietnam. The adventures of members of her family serve as the basis for both novels.

Snow is the name of the main character. Along with her young daughter and teenage nephew, she fled Vietnam a few years after the takeover of the south by communist forces. Snow in Seattle begins about six months after the end of the previous book.

Snow relocates to Seattle after being sponsored by Skyler Herrington and hosted by the First Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Herrington was the best friend of Cpl. Sam Hammond, the American soldier Snow loved in Vietnam. Hammond was killed in action in 1972.  Herrington and Snow are both dealing with PTSD as a result of their experiences in Vietnam. Different ghosts haunt them. As Snow puts it: “I am tired of living within my memories.”

It’s early 1980 and people are still talking about the recent eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. Snow has lots of adjustments to make. There are cold mornings, and for a while she notices she is continuing to eat the plentiful food at the family’s table even after she is full. She eventually needs to get a job and learn to drive so she can get the independence she longs for.

Raising her young daughter and teenage nephew in the U.S., sending them to local schools and watching them play with neighborhood kids, she’s determined to try to instill Vietnamese values, beliefs, and identity into them. “We may be living among the Westerners,” Snow says, “but we must never give up our roots.”

While reading Snow’s story of learning to make a new home in America we have a chance to see the many things that we take for granted. It’s especially notable as the family experiences new foods, American holidays, and sayings that are commonplace but require a serious familiarity with the language to understand. After a year, the family is speaking two languages at home while constantly keeping the television on to continue to learn English.

619savdhz-l._us230_

Amy Le

What I especially enjoyed about Le’s two novels is her literary mastery of real life. As you read the book’s dialogue it’s as if you’re actually hearing the words with your ears instead of reading them with your eyes. That is a true gift.

Too often, even today, when people say the word  “Vietnam,” they are referring to the Vietnam War. Le’s novels, based on her family’s true story, help American readers see that Vietnam is a country, not a war–and one that many of its people felt forced to flee. It’s the amazing strength of those people that Le illustrates so well in these novels.

The author’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud

Snow in Vietnam by Amy M. Le

Snow in Vietnam (Mercury West Publishing, 229 pp. $26.99, hardcover; 16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a debut novel by Amy M. Le. The author was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States at the age of five. She now considers both the Pacific Northwest and Oklahoma to be her homes. 

I love the title, even if it is somewhat gimmicky. I also loved the novel. “Snow” is the name of the main character, a woman who is the youngest of seven children. Within the family she is called “Eight” because her parents are “One.” In May 1973 she is a 34-year-old virgin living with her family in Vinh Binh Province in the Mekong Delta, and is about to marry a Vietnamese man she hardly knows. She’s a former schoolteacher who now works for a bank. The Paris Peace Treaty has been signed, bringing hope that normalcy will come to Vietnam.

She marries and gives birth to a daughter a year later. Shortly afterward she learns that her husband has been living another life with another woman. It’s a deceit that Snow refers to as “a Nixonian blow.” With her life falling apart, she strikes out with her daughter in a bold move of independence. Before long, though, she returns to the home of her parents and siblings.

By early 1975 communist troops, which Le refers to as the “northern army,” are moving on Saigon and pretty quickly the city falls. As the communists gain control over all of the former South Vietnam western books and clothes are burned and families are encouraged to spy on their neighbors. By the end of 1976 Snow has missed three opportunities to escape this oppressive society—in which, she notes, even the sunlight seems to shine differently—and flee to the U.S.A. She saves money for years to try to buy freedom for herself and her young daughter.

But time marches on. Her child seems to be suffering from a serious heart condition. There are fears of a war with Cambodia and China. She wants to be able to give her daughter the life that she used to dream of for herself. With 1977 coming to a close, any possible escape still seems “light years away.”

Then in early 1979 she seizes what may be her last opportunity and faces the dangers involved in getting herself, her daughter, and a nephew onto a small fishing boat with forty other people. There’s no turning back as the boat sails into the South China Sea.

The final chapters continue Snow’s story, telling of storms, pirates, and many months in Indonesia before receiving the news she has waited years to hear.

This novel is dedicated to “the boat people of Vietnam and the refugees who left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.” Le wrote it as a tribute to her late mother’s bravery and selflessness.

Amy Le should be pleased with her work and know that her mother’s memory has been well served.

The author’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

81awbgiq3fl

Chris Bohjalian writes best-selling thrillers—lots of them. His twenty-first and latest, The Red Lotus (Doubleday, 400 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle, $24.50, audiobook), has a strong Vietnam War theme.

One main character—an NYC private investigator and former cop—served in the trenches in the war. One minor character, an upper-crust guy (“Boston Brahmin, Patrician, old money”) served as an Army lifeguard in country. The uncle of one of the main characters died in combat in the war. Agent Orange and its effects on humans and animals—mainly rats—comes up periodically. And a fair amount of the action takes place in Vietnam, albeit in the present day

Rats are at the center of this fast-moving novel. So is the Plague. So is a sociopath who enjoys torturing and murdering people. So is Bohjalian’s fondness for filling the book with in-your-face, clinical descriptions of fatal illnesses and serious medical conditions, along with their medical treatments. The main character, Alexis, a millennial ER doctor, has a self-cutting addiction. Bohjalian fills us in on the razor-blade specifics of that malady, as well as all manner of emergency injuries and illnesses that Alexis treats on the job.

That is, when she isn’t trying to spearhead the investigation into the mysterious death of Austin, her boyfriend. He died violently in Vietnam, purportedly run over by a car during a solo excursion while the young couple was enjoying a biking vacation there.

Alexis discovers that Austin had lied to her and everyone else about why he choose Vietnam for this biking adventure. He claimed he wanted to see the place where his dad—the lifeguard—had been wounded and his uncle had been killed. Turns out his rear-echelon father had been injured in a golf cart accident at Long Binh Post and his uncle died in another part of Vietnam.

Those revelations set in motion a plot that moves back and forth between Vietnam and New York City. The tale includes a smart Vietnamese detective, the dedicated American Nam vet PI, an edgy NYC hospital administrator, and an array of bad guys and gals—and rats.

The sociopath is a rat aficionado. He’s also a maniac who cooks up a dastardly scheme involving a unique biological weapon: rats injected with a new form of the Plague that does not respond to antibiotics. Austin, a clean-cut guy who raises money for the hospital where Alexis works, gets involved in the scheme and pays for it with his life. The plot picks up steam as the hunt for Austin’s killer (and the real reason he went to Vietnam) meshes with the main bad guy’s plan to unleash ultra-killer rats on the world. Things zoom to a blood-drenched climax in New York City.

books1-1-c23700a9233bebb4

Chris Bohjalian

Along the way, Bohjalian gets in a bit of Vietnam War support troop bashing at the expense of Austin’s Army lifeguard dad. Rear-echeloners were “guys playing basketball and sitting around getting tan at the swimming pools,” the Vietnamese cop explains to Alexis. “Plus the tennis courts. The softballs fields. The libraries. The weight rooms. The nightclubs.”

Who knew?

If you’re up for delving into the fictional ramifications of evildoers unleashing the Plague on the world as we go through a real pandemic, this could very well be the book for you.

The author’s website is chrisbohjalian.com

–Marc Leepson

 The Off-Islander by Peter Colt

81tiac-tl1l

Peter Colt spent twenty-four years in the Army Reserves. During that time he served in Kosovo in 2000 and in Iraq in 2003 and 2008. Colt, who was born in 1973, got to know many Vietnam War veterans and Green Berets while serving in the Reserves. He grew up on Nantucket—the island referred to in the title of his new book, The Off-Islander (Kensington, 240 pp. $26, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle).

Colt’s first novel is more about the death of the lifelong friendship of Andy Roark, a P.I., and Danny Sullivan, a lawyer, than it is about anything else, which includes trying to find a missing person, the long-gone father of a client. Andy and Danny are refugees from Boston’s Southie, where they were raised. Danny is annoyed with Andy because he has not found a stable job, or a wife, kids, house, mortgage, or dog.

Andy’s Karmann Ghia needs a new clutch and he needs a job to get the money to fix it. So he takes the job and flies to San Francisco to meet with the client and hear what she has to say. The last time Andy was in San Francisco he had just come home from the Vietnam War and got stared at for his short hair and called a “baby killer” in a bar.

In the Army Andy did Recon work and came away from that experience with disdain for supply clerks, jerks, and bottle washers who seemed to later claim they’d served in the Special Forces. He was a Green Beret, just like the man in the song. He went out and found the enemy and killed him or helped him get killed by artillery or bombs. He and his fellow Green Berets trained small, hard, nut-brown Montagnards to kill, too.

13918913-1.jpg

Peter Colt

Andy notes that he worked in a dangerous part of a dangerous, stupid part of the war where the enemy threw their best men at him and his fellow Green Berets, and put bounties on their heads. When Andy came home, he had a lot of trouble trying to be a normal person, going to college, and fitting in. It was chaos; whereas in the war, things made sense to him.

His search for the missing man, Charles Hammond, is confused and difficult and seems destined to fail, but Andy persists despite attempts on his life and a distinct lack of support from Danny Sullivan.

By the end of the book, Danny and Andy are no longer friends and the reader has been taken for a long, exciting ride in pursuit of the missing man.

We are told that this is not the last of the Andy Roark novels. I look forward to the next one.

The author’s website is peter-colt.com

–David Willson

 

Letting Go by Abe Aamidor

51kgjefzakl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

His grandfather served in an engineering unit in France in World War I. His father was a paratrooper badly wounded in World War II. But Indiana native Dwight Bogdanovic didn’t follow family tradition and join the military. A 1-Y deferment for scoliosis kept him from being drafted during the Vietnam War.

Bogdanovic is the narrator of Abe Aamidor’s new novel, Letting Go (The Permanent Press, 192 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle). Aamidor, a former journalist, is the author of a novel, short stories, and nonfiction works including Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man Behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History.

After dropping out of Indiana State University in 1968, Bogdanovic sold encyclopedias. He shared a house for three years with two other guys, one of whom was a Vietnam War veteran named Hank who became a security guard and sped around in a Harley in his free time. Hank was “seemingly uncomplicated,” Aamidor writes, but also would “sit up suddenly in bed in the middle of the night and look around, demand to know who was out there, even call out to his buddies to get their guns.”

Bogdanovic moves from address to address, and job to job, winding up as clerk at a sporting goods store. Relatively late in life, he and his wife, Thetis, have a son, Bertrand, who carries on the family’s martial tradition. The seventeen-year-old enlists in the Army following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“I knew all along he’d be going in,” his father says. “It was in the way he’d discuss famous battles in history and in some of the books he’d read, such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien, although neither was a gung-ho, go get ’em, John Wayne flag waver. Quite the contrary. It was just that Bertrand always took the side of those who would stand tall.”

Bertrand conducts covert operations in Afghanistan and receives several medals. On the first page of the novel we learn that he died overseas. The manner of his death remains a mystery: “The government,” Aamidor writes, “would only say he was KIA, killed in action, the bare outline of a dagger by his name in all the official documents.”

31lzdzbp8ql-_us230_

Abe Aamidor

The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just one concern of Letting Go—to an extent, they represent all combat. Throughout, Aamidor refers to both world wars and the Vietnam War, as well as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and Korean War.

Ultimately, the book examines life in general, and Bogdanovic is an Everyman who reflects on his experiences in a self-effacing way, providing no more than tentative answers to questions that have perplexed philosophers for centuries.

What makes for a rewarding day-to-day existence? Being attentive to one’s thoughts, perhaps—honesty, too, and showing appropriate gratitude. But Bernard’s relentless pursuit of results? Perhaps not.

The author’s website is aamidor.com

–Angus Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin by Dennis Latham

51ot0cacrjl-_sx310_bo1204203200_

Dennis Latham’s novel, Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin (YS Gazelle, 200 pp., $16, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is fiction, almost embarrassingly so. Latham is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam. The book’s blurbs refer to constant laughter provoked in readers by the crazy antics of the characters in this novel. I didn’t have that problem.

The plot of the novel—first published in 2009—concerns the plight of John Elvin, who is twenty-four years old and still a virgin. He is determined to change that status, but he has no idea how to go about doing that. Not a clue. The virgin he meets, Lori Anderson, is eager to help Elvin with his plight, but her eagerness does not translate to anything much happening with any dispatch.

There is a crazy Vietnam veteran in this novel, John’s brother. He was wounded in the war so that his head resembles a butt, which seems funny to everyone but me.

This book has large print and wide margins and can be read in a jiffy, but it still seemed slow going to me. It takes place the summer of 1982, “before HIV made sex an extreme risk, back when condoms were called rubbers,” Latham writes.

It was a different, primitive time. No cell phones, home computers, or satellite TV. So, I guess the book works as a cultural artifact of a certain time and place in America. But I did not find it to be funny.

—David Willson

A Police Action by AA Freda

AA Freda served in the Army’s 5th Infantry Division in the Vietnam War during the period immediately after the Tet Offensive. Freda is the author of Goodbye Rudy Kazoody ,a coming-of-age novel. 

The main characters in Freda’s A Police Action (Dorrance Publishing, 254 pp., $25, hardcover; $16.75, paper; $9.99, Kindle)–which also is a coming-of-age tale–are nineteen-year-old Samantha (Sam) Powers and twenty-one year old James Coppi. It’s a “meet cute,” love-at-first-sight book. And it demonstrates that love is hard, very hard, especially when the female protagonist is pregnant by someone other than the young man she is in love with.

Both of these young people are confused. It doesn’t help matters that James is headed for Vietnam as an Army draftee. Is there any hope for a couple who met in a place called Country Honky Tonk in Colorado Springs?  As the cover blurb warns us, “uncertainty is the only certainty” in this story.

As a survivor of the 1960s, I recognized that era as a main character of this story. The author has done a good job of portraying the 1960s, including the effect the Vietnam War had on the country and the young people who were knocked topsy-turvy by it.

James is something of a con man. He operates as an Army Shylock, lending money before payday to all and sundry. He goes into the Army prepared to operate this way, and has trusted relatives who wire him the money he needs to keep his dirty little business going. I kept expecting to see him dragged into an alley and get his wrists broken, but (spoiler alert) that does not happen.

James does get shipped to Vietnam and does serve his time there, being at risk some of the time although he is mostly a rear echelon trooper. Freda offers a full discussion of the role of REMFs in the war, by the way, and gives some statistics.

To wit: “There’re eight to ten rear-echelon motherfuckers for every one of us up in the front.”

The huge base at Long Binh is accurately characterized as a Little America with tennis courts, nightclubs, restaurants, hot meals, and hot showers. Body count and shit-burning details get full discussion and ham and motherfuckers and fragging get more than a mention.

Also, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000 program—the one that resulted in underqualified men being drafted—is discussed, and said men are called “retards.”  Not a kind label for men who through no fault of their own ended up serving in the Army.

A A Freda

Serious subjects are dealt with, but mostly this is a novel of young love in which Sam and James struggle to survive in a world out of their control. I enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it, especially to young adults.

I am one no longer, but during the period portrayed in this novel I was, and I went through much of what our young lovers did.

My heart went out to them in the course of this sensitive story.

The author’s website is https://www.aafreda.com/a-police-action.html

–David Willson