A Wolf by the Ears by Wayne Karlin

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I’ve lost count of the number of Vietnam War-themed novels I’ve read. On the other hand, I don’t believe I’d ever read a War of 1812 novel until now, having just finished A Wolf by the Ears (University of Massachusetts Press, 320 pp. $22.95, paper and Kindle), a compelling, well-crafted tale by Wayne Karlin.

In this exceptional book—a 2019 winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction—Karlin deftly weaves the fictional story of escaped enslaved people from Southern Maryland into a key part of the 1812-15 war: British Adm. George Cockburn’s raids along the Chesapeake Bay. That series of events culminated with the August 1814 Battle of Bladensburg, the burning of Washington, D.C., and the tide-turning Battle of Baltimore in September.

This book is filled with memorable characters—real and imagined. The star of the show is the unlikely named Towerhill, a smart, driven young man who devises a plan to deliver a group of fellow enslaved African Americans into the arms of the British. After a dangerous, eventful escape, Towerhill becomes a sergeant in the Royal Marines.

He leads his men (and several women) in action as part of Royal Navy and Marine forces that wreaked havoc on slave-holding Southern Maryland plantations, then defeated a ragtag group of militia at Bladensburg just outside Washington. Then came the British move into Washington, replete with the infamous burning and looting of the White House, the Congressional Library and other government buildings, and then the events in Baltimore Harbor.

Karlin does an exceptional job recreating the action at Bladensburg, Washington, and Baltimore from the British point of view. That includes an evocative, well-rendered look at the fighting on land at North Point outside Baltimore during which the flamboyant British general Robert Ross was shot off his horse and killed, as well as the massive bombardment of Fort McHenry of Francis Scott Key and “Star-Spangled Banner” fame. And the fateful decision by the British commander, Adm. Thomas Cochrane, to order a withdrawal from Baltimore Harbor in the early hours of September 14.

Karlin—who served as a Marine Corps helicopter door gunner in the Vietnam War—has written seven novels, nearly all of them dealing in some way with that war. That includes Lost Armies, one of the best literary treatments of the Vietnam War’s psychological aftermath.

A Wolf by the Ears has nothing to do with that conflict. But in this book Karlin shows that he also can evocatively and effectively write about a long-ago war and the institution of slavery. He draws a brilliant and forceful portrait of plantation life in Southern Maryland in the early 19th century. It’s not a pretty picture. There is violence and psychological abuse aplenty, which Karlin describes in detail throughout the book. That’s also true with the battle scenes. That is to his credit as no one benefits from sanitized fictional portrayals of war or slavery.

The book’s title—from an 1820 quote by Thomas Jefferson on slavery—is a theme throughout. “We can neither hold him, nor let him safely go,” Jefferson wrote about enslaved African Americans. Karlin shows the truth of those words as he presents the life-altering, wrenching decisions that enslaved people in Southern Maryland went through before choosing to join the British. And what they metaphorically became once they began actively fighting their former masters—and other Americans.

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Wayne Karlin

Here’s Karlin’s typically lyrical prose evoking Towerhill’s thoughts as he is about to order his men into battle, former slaves sharply dressed in redcoat British uniforms and armed with Baker rifles with “two foot long bayonets.”

The company, he writes, “looks as sharp and dangerous as those bayonets. Something swells in him. A short time ago, these fighters had been stooped, shuffling wraiths, shadows of men, their rebellious, free natures expressed only in furtive mutters, the subtle camouflage of song and the equally subtle ways in which they would sabotage their labor, a sharp clandestine mockery of their masters. Now they are wolves. His people.”

–Marc Leepson

VVA Veteran Arts Editor Marc Leepson’s profile of Wayne Karlin appeared in the July/August 2005 print issue—just before Karlin received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award at that summer’s Vietnam Veterans of America National Convention.

Apocalypse Hotel by Ho An Thai

Apocalypse Hotel: A Novel by Ho An Thai (Texas Tech University Press, 144 pp., $24.95) is a handsome production, in hardcover, with great art on the dust jacket. A cover blurb by Susan Swartout informs the reader that this author is “considered the most important writer of Vietnam’s post-war generation.”

The author, Ho An Thai, was born in Hanoi in 1960. I assume he spent the war in Hanoi, although we are not told. Initially, I had an image of him as one of those teen-aged “cowboys” aboard a motor scooter who spent his time terrorizing pedestrians in the crowded streets of Saigon when I was there in 1966-67, but that is unlikely.

Ho Anh Thai

The introduction by Wayne Karlin informs us that Danang Publishing House published Apocalypse Hotel after all the other publishers in the country refused it. It has sold 50,000 copies and has had ten printings in Vietnam.

A summary of the book says it is “a cautionary tale about how wars meant to liberate can nevertheless present degrading aftereffects and unforeseen consequences.” Karlin’s introduction warns the prospective reader of “suicidal motor scooter races,” and the occasional goat strangling. Karlin is not kidding. There is even a grisly episode of cannibalism, which disturbed my enthusiasm for my hamburger patty lunch.

I found this short novel heavy going at first, and I wondered what Wayne Karlin’s role in adapting this little book involved since it is not spelled out.  Did he chop out stuff that slowed down the plot? I doubt it, but I wondered.  Karlin—a novelist, memoirist and essayist who served as U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War—is credited in this edition as one of the authors.

Wayne Karlin

One annoying anomaly of this book is that although American slang is frequently used (such as the word “grab-ass,”)  often effectively, the translator, Jonathan R. S. McIntyre, chose to give all measurements in French. For instance, the weight of dead people is described in kilos instead of pounds. This was odd and confusing to me as I never had a clue about the height or weight of anybody.

I admit that when the author describes a person as being like Tarzan, (he does this twice), I figured that the guy was big. I could have abandoned the text and got out paper and pencil and worked out the equivalent measurements in American terms, but I lacked that impulse.

This little book is described as being fast-paced, and I guess it is once it gets going; it does move right along. Is this book a fable or a fairly accurate portrait of life in 1990’s Vietnam, told in the form of a sordid mystery about the deaths of three young men who are nephews to the narrator, Uncle Dong? Maybe it is both.

As the book gained momentum and the bodies piled up, I often found myself comparing it to Crash, a classic novel of highway mayhem by the great J. G. Ballard.

Uncle Dong suspects the culprit responsible for the mysterious deaths of the three young men is a beautiful young woman, Mai Trung, who seems to possess unearthly powers.  “As she got older, Mai Trung understood that she carried within her a current of lethal human electrical power that reacted against people with evil intentions.”  She is, you could say, a sort of human electrical stingray.

Much of this book is devoted to Uncle Dong’s pursuit of this young woman, and lengthy philosophical ruminations about the nature of good and evil and what it all means.

There are many and frequent references to the American war in Vietnam and America’s efforts to bomb the country into the Stone Age by what are referred to as “American pirates of the sky.”  These passages are very poetical, but also terribly culture bound.

The point of view of this author is that Americans dropped a lot of bombs on Vietnam, which surprised me because I encounter exactly the opposite point of view in the literature of the war produced by Americans who seem to think we failed to drop enough bombs to do the job properly. For that reason alone—that is, getting a different angle on our war—this book was worth reading.

The author did not seem aware that the Vietnamese invited us to invade that lovely little country and to drop as many bombs as we wanted to drop, so as to defeat the spread of worldwide communism. I suspect that the state-controlled education that this author received failed to put forward that historical truism.

I recommend this novel to those who are looking for a powerfully different look at the effects of our war in Vietnam. I admit that I was relieved when I finished the book, and didn’t have to read any more about the smell of the dead bodies in the morgue and the like.

—David Willson