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.

Ciecie Tuyet Nguyen

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

Hystopia by David Means

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David Means is the author of four story collections. His first novel, Hystopia (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 352 pp., $26), is an alternative history of the seventies in which John F. Kennedy has survived multiple assassination attempts and is still president while the Vietnam War continues.

Means has created yet another in a long list of novels that take us to the heart of American darkness in the Vietnam War. In this one faith in high-tech sensors designed to detect VC urination patterns goes unbounded. With our fire power and our sneaky-peepy expertise, the book seems to say, how can we lose?  Well, let me count the ways.

I now wish I hadn’t used the word “phantasmagorical” to describe previous Vietnam War novels. I should have reserved the word for this book. But, then again, I didn’t know this one was coming.

Means has produced many brilliant short stories. Some of his most serious fans had given up on him producing the Great American Novel they hoped for from him. But here it is. And it’s a Vietnam War novel, sort of.

It has everything—and I do mean everything: elephant grass, rice paddies, the Mekong Delta, jungle rot, slogging, ambushes, crew cuts, taking a hill, losing a hill, choppers, water buffalo, dust-offs. And that list is on just one page.

Means’ novel is mostly about an all-encompassing federal agency that JFK has created:  the Psych Corps. “Dedicated to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene by any means necessary.”  Can traumas be overcome? This novel seems to hold little hope for that.

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David Means

Characters opine that rich kids evaded the war and that most of the folks who went fell into the group called Mac’s morons. Means uses a lot of pop culture fodder in this book: the Phantom Blooper, Norman Rockwell, the Big Two-Hearted River, Huckleberry Finn, Tarzan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles.

We get asked how many Vietnam veterans it takes to screw in a light bulb. The answer: You can’t know; you weren’t there.

There’s lots of pontificating about what it is that makes up a true war story. Tim O’Brien grappled with that question decades ago in The Things They Carried. I believe he provided a better answer.

This book lacks a story that make me care about any of the characters, even though JFK’s sister made me sad. Still, I would suggest dipping into this book and seeing what’s there. You’ll find a lot of food for thought.

But I didn’t really need more of that. Or didn’t want any more.

—David Willson

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlan

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Anna Quindlen, a newspaper columnist and novelist, writes bestsellers. Her books are about the American family. Her target audience is mostly American women. She has ventured into new territory in her latest novel, Miller’s Valley (Random House, 272 pp., $28), with varied success.

Mimi Miller is the narrator of this family saga, which begins in the 1960s and follows the family and its toxic secrets to the present. We are told that Mimi’s mother struggled to maintain her family, but all it says about Tommy, one of the two sons, is that he “becomes unrecognizable.” I wondered what it meant, but I had my suspicions. Only as we get into the book do we learn that he joined the military and fought in the Vietnam War.

Tommy’s story becomes the backbone of this sad novel. Mimi’s ostensible obsession with the flooding of Miller Valley is the surface subject of the book.

“When my brother had finally come home for good, people said he was changed man,” Mimi says. “That wasn’t true. He looked a little like Tommy Miller, and sometimes he even talked a little like Tommy Miller. But the real Tommy Miller was gone. I don’t know where he left him, but that guy didn’t live in Miller’s Valley anymore. One day a car had dropped him opposite the barn just as I was getting home from school. I wrapped my arms around his neck, but it was like hugging a mannequin. He peeled me off as soon as was decent, or maybe sooner.”

She goes on: “We weren’t even sure where he’d been.  He’d been gone more than three years, but Eddie was certain he hadn’t been in the service all that time. It was funny, Tom had changed so much but Eddie hadn’t changed much at all, still serious and a little anxious.”

Tommy “even scared me a little,” Mimi says. “He’d grown a big moustache and his hair was even longer now, and everything about him had coarsened, his skin, his body, his language, his eyes. The light in his eyes was gone, and so was the grin. That broke my mother’s heart I think.”

Later she says: “Tommy was one of those drunks who went through all the stages: sociable, silent, mean, nasty, violent. He tuned my father up, although he’d probably say it was the other way around.”

Mimi and the author are right on the money about how mother gets freaked out about the long hair and the big mustache, but to choose the word “coarsened” for his changes is hardhearted. It’s one example of too many false and suspicious notes that Quindlen hits in this short book.  Three years are about right for him to be gone, for one thing. Also, the use of term “being in the service” is not right for a tour of duty in Vietnam.

Mimi’s curiosity about Tommy’s tour of duty continues throughout the novel. “Every once in a while,” she says, “Tommy would get drunk and say something like ‘the bugs, man, you can’t even believe the size of the bugs. They’ll eat you for breakfast.’ But you couldn’t ask him a direct question about Vietnam.  On the news they showed some boys who burnt their draft cards. And Tom said, ‘I wasn’t even drafted, I signed up of my own free will.’ Then he laughed and laughed, and then he started to cry and he fell asleep on the couch before dinner and had disappeared by morning.

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Anna Quindlen

“Sometimes at the diner one of the old guys would say, ‘they make it look pretty bad over there, son.’ And Tom would say one of two things, either, ‘You have no idea’ or ‘You don’t want to know.’ Then someone would say that we had to beat the communists or they would take over everything, and Tommy would stand up and leave. He always got comped because Mr. Venti told the waitresses we had to honor his service to our country, even though I wasn’t sure Tom felt that way himself.”

I believe the comments of the old guys in the diner. But a Vietnam veteran getting comped for his food during that era was hard for me to swallow.

Later we’re told that he “took a lot of pills, some to help him get up in the morning, some to help with the pain in his leg. He took something that was supposed to make him puke if he drank, and he took it and drank anyway and got so sick he seemed he would turn his insides out. ‘I always start the day with good intentions,’ he said to me once.

“Sometimes he would even fulfill them. He would help my father deliver a heavy engine in the truck to someone, or he would pick up groceries for Ruth. He would sit with her and watch television, and he would make the two of them baloney sandwiches with mustard and potato chips. And then he would disappear and we wouldn’t see him for days, maybe longer….  Usually when he turned up again he looked exhausted, and sometimes he was bruised, or cut up.”

Mimi would sometimes watch him sleep on the couch. She didn’t look at his face, “but at the rise and fall of his chest under the grimy T-shirt. I wondered what his plan was now. Getting through the day, I figured… I guess Tommy’s whole life now was a war wound.”

Nothing much good ever happens for Tom. To be fair, nothing much good happens to his Aunt Ruth either. She is a Gothic character who never leaves her house and keeps a dead baby in a suitcase in her attic. Tom never becomes more than a stereotypical emotionally damaged Vietnam War veteran who never gets his life together. He deals drugs, gets into fights, and serves time in prison. Eventually, he disappears. We never find out where or why.

Few, if any A-list authors at top-line publishers are dealing with Vietnam veterans these days. So I was driven to read this book and find out how it would be done. I could be wrong, but I didn’t get the feeling that Quindlen actually has known any Vietnam veterans personally, let alone had one for a brother or husband or a father. Her characterization of Tommy seems well researched, but not torn from personal relationship or personal pain.

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Bruce Willis as Emmett in In Country, the 1989 movie

Tommy reminded me a lot of Emmett, the main Vietnam veteran character in another novel by a top American female author, Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country. That novel was also well-researched, but is infinitely more worthy than Quindlen’s effort. Perhaps it was the help Mason had from Vietnam veterans she know, including W. D. Ehrhart.

Tommy lacks the positive traits of Emmett. I would have liked to have seen some positive traits. But that is just me being a Vietnam veteran who looks for those things in fellow vets.  And I usually find them, both in real and fictional veterans. That’s because people are usually a mixture.

I had high hopes for Miller’s Valley. I thought we might finally find a fully developed, fully rounded, realistic portrait of a Vietnam veteran. I didn’t find that in this novel—not by a long shot.

—David Willson

The Trion Syndrome by Tom Glenn

 

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Tom Glenn spent thirteen years shuttling between the U. S. and Vietnam as an undercover NSA employee working on covert signals intelligence assignments before being rescued under fire when the North Vietnamese took Saigon in May of 1975.  We reviewed his book, Friendly Casualties, a Vietnam War novel-in-stories, on these pages last year.

The Trion Syndrome (Apprentice House, 306 pp., $15.99, paper) is dedicated to “all combatants who suffered damage to their souls while serving this country.” Glenn describes the book as “at once a domestic novel of marital infidelity, angsty teen-agers, and job strife, and a disturbing psychological study of long-held and barely repressed trauma.”  A close reading of the novel justifies that claim.

The protagonist, Dave Bell, shares many similarities with the author. He’s a Thomas Mann scholar who has returned from Vietnam, and is tormented by nightly dreams. He’s functioning, but damaged. He was changed in Vietnam, and not in a good way.

This novel is written in an experimental style, which involves switching from first person to third person when the author deems it necessary. The book is a beautifully written and edited literary novel.  Readers will do better with it, though, if they have read and understood the novels of Thomas Mann and have taken a few years of German. I’ve done those things and I still found the novel a struggle.

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Tom Glenn

Here’s a brief quote illustrating the challenges in this novel: “He recognized Harry’s writing style—his use of ‘in order to’ and the past progressive and his tendency to string present participle clauses at the end of sentences.”

This sort of stuff can be fun for a Thomas Mann expert, but for normal mortals, not so much. The book does connect with the Vietnam War, to an illusive incident in Long Dinh, but most Vietnam veterans readers will find this book a difficult puzzle.

I recommend it only to die-hard Mann fans.

The author’s website is the-trion-syndrome.com

—David Willson