|Vietnam Veterans of America|
|Books in Review, January/February 2021|
Three Novels and a Biography: Vietnam War Veterans in Fiction and Nonfiction
As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, the Vietnam War and those who fought in it are steadily fading into the rearview mirror of public consciousness. One way in which the war and its veterans continue to live, however, is on the printed page—and, okay, in electronic books, as well. That positive development is reflected in the four books we’re showcasing in this issue: two serious novels, one best-selling legal thriller, and a biography of a major American author—all of which touch on the war and its veterans in varying degrees.
The book with the strongest Vietnam War theme is Lone Stars (St. Martin’s Press, 304 pp., $27.00), a worthy first novel by Justin Deabler. Born and raised in Houston, Deabler, 43, escaped the Lone Star State when he enrolled at age 15 at a progressive liberal arts school for high-achieving high school-aged students in Massachusetts. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School at 23.
Lone Stars is the coming-of-age story of a young man named Julian Warner who has a difficult childhood and adolescence in the West Texas oil town of Midland. Difficult because of his emotionally fragile mother, his philandering father, and the racist, homophobic Zeitgeist of the place. Before Deabler even gets to Julian’s arrival in the world, though, he spends much time illuminating the early lives of Julian’s mother and father, Lacy and Aaron. Both also are high achievers who struggle as they grow up under the thumbs of narrow-minded, oppressive parents. Both wind up at the University of Texas: She on her way toward getting a Ph.D. in chemistry, he to medical school.
Aaron’s bitter father all but sabotages his son’s budding college football career, putting pressure on him to join the family carpet cleaning business. Aaron perseveres, however, earns a full scholarship to UT, and makes the football team. But then life starts throwing bigger lemons at him—and at Lacy when her Ph.D. plans get derailed by a sexist professor. Aaron never gets to medical school, and soon he’s humping the boonies in I Corps as an infantryman in the Vietnam War.
Aaron and Lacy become pen pals—reluctantly, at first, on her part. Soon they are sharing their innermost thoughts and falling in long-distance love. Deabler—who was born in 1977—does an exemplary job of showing what the war was like for Aaron and countless other infantrymen through his letters to Lacy. “Twenty-three years you believe things matter,” Aaron writes, “school, jobs, to end up in the jungle? To see it slip through your fingers halfway around the world, in a hell so deep you are wishing for death. You dream of it and wake up cursing your eyes for opening.”
Deabler evocatively sketches a horrendous scene in which Aaron is severely wounded and his squad is nearly wiped out in an ambush while clearing mines on a road. There’s much death and carnage, but Aaron is lucky. He lands in an Evac hospital where caring nurses and doctors get him back on his feet—and out of the war.
Aaron recovers. He keeps writing to Lacy and they meet and marry after he comes home. But Aaron’s life goes south soon after his son comes along. There’s deep emotional distancing, heavy drinking, and nonstop affairs. Aaron makes only a few appearances in the book after Lacy divorces him. When he does, he’s a physical and emotional shadow of his former smart, upright, hard-working self. He later develops Parkinson’s, which he attributes to exposure to Agent Orange.
Julian has issues, too, mainly involving his sexuality, his search for love, and his well-meaning but overbearing mother. He comes out in high school and marries a good man after finishing college. This fast-moving book fully and sympathetically illuminates the varied lives of the three Texans at the heart of the story. They go through serious ups and downs, and that’s what life—and good storytelling—is all about.
MORE THAN A WOMAN
Name the most memorable Vietnam War literary novels. Okay, you can stop now. Now list outstanding home-front Vietnam War (or “Sixties”) novels or short stories: works that creatively illuminate the antiwar movement; the draft’s impact on men, women, and their families; and the other social and political earthquakes that shook the country during the Vietnam War. Can’t think of any? Same here.
I had a ray of hope that the journalist Sarah McCraw Crow’s The Wrong Kind of Woman (MIRA, 320 pp., $27.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) would be a candidate for a place on the small list of worthy home-front Vietnam War novels. That’s because Crow’s first novel, which ticks just about all the home-front issue boxes, received rave pre-publication reviews.
In The Wrong Kind of Woman Crow does show off some solid literary qualities. There’s a compelling main plot, fluid writing, and mostly flushed out characters. But—you knew there would be a “but”—the novel falls short of the high literary bar set by the great works of Vietnam War-heavy literary fiction.
The title refers to 40-something Virginia Desmarais, who is unexpectedly widowed in 1970 and finds herself with a rebellious teen-aged daughter and social and work environments that stifle her talent (art history) and job prospects. Her story opens in November of that Vietnam War year on the campus of the all-male college in New Hampshire where Virginia’s late husband taught. There had been some antiwar unrest on the otherwise politically placid campus. Now, a hint of more radical activity is in the air, and a handful of female faculty members are revolting against gender discrimination and pushing for the college to go co-ed. Some students live in a hippie commune just off campus. The male students are forever rehashing “the never-ending subjects of draft deferments and the lottery.” A Vietnam War veteran student is a significant supporting character.
The subplots involve the antiwar movement and the Nam vet character, a gruff guy named Jerry. He lives on that commune, although he stands apart from his fellow students “with his ponytail and the leather jacket he wore through the winter, instead of a duffel coat or a ski jacket like everyone else.” Jerry’s blunt, but proves to be good guy from Queens who befriends an immature, naïve upper-crust Manhattan student named Sam. We see Jerry through Sam’s eyes and it’s a positive picture. Jerry, Sam thinks, has a special kind of cool, “nothing like all the other college coolness things.
“Jerry’s thing was the opposite; he’d been to war. He’d gone to the other side of the world, marched through Vietnam’s jungly alien territory.” Sam “would have died of fright from all the daily unknowns,” he thinks. “Jerry had probably gone down into those tunnels underground, might have killed a bunch of Vietcong. But he’d come back alive.”
Jerry and Sam develop an odd-couple computer lab friendship. Then Sam gets involved with an alluring visiting student radical, who drags him into planning a not-peaceful war protest. Jerry wants nothing to do with it. What happens next is filled with tension.
The Wrong Kind of Woman is not the home-front Vietnam War era novel, but it’s a solid one worth reading for anyone who lived through the era—or wants to know what was happening on college campuses as the war continued and the antiwar movement intensified in the early seventies.
The author’s website is https://sarahmccrawcrow.com
If the name “Harry Bosch” rings a bell, it’s a safe bet that you are a fan of the work of the great best-selling detective/thriller novelist, Michael Connelly. I have been an admirer of Connelly’s literary work since the former L.A. Times police reporter gave us The Black Echo in 1992. That stunning debut novel starred Bosch, a former Vietnam War tunnel rat turned LAPD homicide detective who is both mentally tough and emotionally troubled by his traumatic childhood and war experiences—and who is single-mindedly dedicated to solving murder cases.
Here’s a quick roadmap of Bosch’s literary life. He’s center stage in 22 Connelly books, all of which we’ve reviewed in Books in Review or in Books in Review II online. Four of the Bosch books feature Harry’s half-brother Mickey Haller, aka the “Lincoln Lawyer,” so named because he uses his car as his law office. Bosch also appears in three of the six Mickey Haller courtroom thrillers and in two of the three Renée Ballard police procedurals. In the latter, Harry works closely with Ballard, a quirky LAPD detective, who appears in the last two Harry Bosch books, Dark Sacred Night (2018) and The Night Fire (2019).
Which brings us to Connelly’s 35th and latest novel, The Law of Innocence (Little Brown, 425 pp., $29, hardcover, $14.99, e book). This is a Lincoln Lawyer book in which Mickey Haller is the main character and Bosch plays a significant supporting role. This time Mickey is the victim of an elaborate scheme to frame him for the murder of a former client. Even with his brilliant and bombastic legal skills, things look dire for the Lincoln Lawyer. He winds up in jail and it soon becomes apparent that forces are out to do him violence. Meanwhile, he is fighting the death penalty in the courtroom, where he decides to represent himself.
Mickey brings in his regular investigator to find the real killer, but also asks his half-brother to join the team. Bosch has been retired and working part-time for a few years, but hasn’t lost any of his top-flight detective chops. He appears early in the book, and his service in the Vietnam War is only mentioned once. The half-brothers sometimes have been antagonists, but Harry comes through unreservedly for Mickey this time. He uses his cop smarts and his LAPD connections and proves to be an important part of the defense team.
As always, Connelly keeps things moving rapidly, using plenty of realistic dialogue, unexpected plot twists, and memorable characters (including a few very evil people). You don’t know what will happen until just before the end.
Only one small nit to pick, and it only applies to big Harry Bosch fans. Harry is muted here. In the Bosch books he’s a cantankerous, brooding, risk-taking, brilliant, and brave detective who throws himself totally into his work. Here he does most of his legwork offstage and all but disappears in the last third of the book.
“The law of innocence is unwritten,” Connelly explains. “It will not be found in a leather-bound code book. It will never be argued in a courtroom. It cannot be written into law by the elected. It is an abstract idea and yet it closely aligns with the hard laws of nature and science. In the law of innocence, for every man not guilty of a crime, there is a man out there who is. And to prove true innocence, the guilty man must be found and exposed to the world.”
Michael Connelly’s website is https://www.michaelconnelly.com
STEINBECK & THE VIETNAM WAR
Bill Souder’s engagingly written biography, Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck (Norton, 446 pp. $32), brilliantly illuminates the life of the renowned novelist who is best known for Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. As Souder’s title indicates, Steinbeck (1902-68) was one cranky, iconoclastic guy. He lived to write—and to make money—but his ornery side asserted itself in his interactions with people, and when he steadfastly ran from the spotlight after the acclaim that came with the critical and popular success of his books.
Souder, who has written well-received biographies of J.J. Audubon and Rachel Carson, is a dogged researcher and a fluid writer. That makes reading this biography a page-turning pleasure as Souder spins out the life story of his subject and also provides insightful analyses of each of Steinbeck’s books.
Steinbeck drank to excess, married three times, had an extremely high opinion of himself, and was a rotten father to his two sons, Thomas (known as Thom) and John IV (whom the family called “Catbird”). “He had rigid ideas about discipline,” Souder says, “that could erupt into disproportionate anger and even physical abuse.” John IV reported “that the great epiphany of his childhood was that his father was an asshole.”
John Steinbeck—who was fifteen when the U.S. entered World War I—“wanted to go to war” after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. At 39, he tried to get a military commission, but was turned down, most likely because of his left-wing political activism in the early 1930s. Instead, he worked as an editor and correspondent for the Office of War Information in New York and overseas.
Steinbeck covered the Allied invasion of Italy in September of 1943. His wish to be in the thick of things came true when Steinbeck took advantage of the chaos of war when, disregarding protocol, he “removed his press insignia, and armed himself with a Thompson submachine gun.”
Both of John Steinbeck’s sons served in the Army in the Vietnam War. Thom (who was born in 1944), enlisted and spent his time as a helicopter door gunner, combat photographer, and then as an AFVN TV producer during his 1968-69 tour of duty. John IV had been drafted into the Army two years before his brother joined. The younger Steinbeck also worked for AFVN TV and as a war correspondent in Vietnam during his 1966-67 tour. Both sons returned to Vietnam after the war as civilian correspondents.
Their father also went to Vietnam—spending six months (December 1966 to May 1967) in country as a correspondent for Newsday, the Long Island, N.Y., newspaper. “Unable to escape his fame—and dismissive of any restrictions on reports,” Souder writes, Steinbeck “hung out with generals and sometimes carried an M16 in the field.” He wrote 58 essays for Newsday, in which he railed against antiwar protesters back home, lavished praise on America’s war technology, especially helicopters, and urged the nation to keep up the fight against worldwide communism. The columns are collected in a 2012 book, Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War.
Later, Souder says, John Steinbeck began to “question his hawkishness.” He even went to the White House to tell President Johnson (Steinbeck’s third wife was a college friend of Lady Bird Johnson) what should be done. Steinbeck “offered suggestions for ‘winning the war’ and ending the things he felt the United States was doing wrong in Vietnam,” Souder writes.
But the former war hawk “wasn’t convinced that either was possible, and later said that “America could not win the war.” He came to the conclusion, Souder reports, “that even if America prevailed on the ground, and defeated the supposed enemy in the usual sense, we would be just an occupying army in an alien environment. Even that, he said, was out of reach.”
Soon after reaching that conclusion, John Steinbeck had “an ugly falling out,” as Souder puts it, with his younger son. Not long after John IV had come home from the war, he was busted for marijuana possession. He claimed the dope was not his, a jury believed him, and found him not guilty. Not long after that, John IV testified about drug use among the troops before a congressional committee, and took the occasion to speak out against the war.
John Steinbeck died in New York City on December 20, 1968.
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