|Vietnam Veterans of America|
|Books in Review, May/June 2021|
The Committed: Viet Nguyen’s Sterling Sympathizer Sequel
Viet Thanh Nguyen is an American literary treasure. If you don’t believe that, pick up his Pulitzer-Prize-winning, best-selling 2016 novel, The Sympathizer. A bold, brash, beautifully crafted tale told by a never-identified-by-name main character, the book lasers in on the American war in Vietnam and the postwar political and social landscape there and among the Vietnamese expatriate community in the U.S. It’s a rapidly moving, sardonic, sometimes brutal, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny novel that showcases the author’s insights into the fallout from the Vietnam War among those who took part in it and civilians caught up in it.
That same high concept fits the book’s sequel, The Committed (Grove Press, 348 pp. $27). This time the anonymous narrator is in Paris in the 1980s and living on the edge—his nickname isn’t “Crazy Bastard” for nothing—dealing self-destructively with the physical and emotional effects of his days working as a double agent with the ARVN and CIA, and then as a one-man sleeper cell in the U.S. following the war.
The Committed is another triumph of storytelling and the imagination. It is at once Salmon Rushdie-like dense—with long paragraphs and sentences, including one that’s six pages long and another covering three pages—and compulsively readable. I realized about a half-page into that spell-binding six-page sentence in which the narrator describes a vicious mugging that I hadn’t come to a period. After that, I read the rest slack-jawed, carried away by Nguyen’s creativity and craftsmanship.
The book also is a political novel and a thriller, not exactly an easy feat. The politics includes blunt critiques of the Vietnamese communists’ doctrinaire brutality, as well as the former South Vietnamese government’s venality, the French colonialists’ all-encompassing racism, and the American war-making machine’s perfidies.
Want a sample? Here’s the narrator’s take on Henry Kissinger receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, which the Crazy Bastard calls “a punch line so funny it made me laugh.”
If “I knifed somebody on the street,” he says, “I was a murderer. But if I, like Kissinger… was agreeable to fleets of bombers dropping tons of bombs on thousands of innocent people, then I was a statesman.” If “Hitler had triumphed, he might have won the Nobel Peace prize, too, since nothing brought peace more effectively than exterminating as many of one’s enemies as possible.”
Viet Nguyen, 50, came to this country as a child with his parents. Today’s he’s an English and American Studies and Ethnicity professor at the University of Southern California. A former MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grant recipient and a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, it’s a good bet he is working on his next novel. That’s a very good thing.
Russell Banks (Continental Drift, Affliction, et. al) also is among the nation’s most renowned literary novelists as his membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters attests. His new novel, Foregone (Ecco, 320 pp. $28.99), is an in-your-face tale centering on a dying expatriate American in Canada named Leo Fife, a semi-famous documentary filmmaker in his adopted country who fled across the border during the height of the Vietnam War.
The entire book takes place in one brutal day in which Fife, writhing in physical agony due to the rampaging cancer about to snuff out his life, insists on spilling his guts to another documentary filmmaker and his crew, a former protégé whom he despises.
Banks turned 81 in March, which puts him at the about the same age as Fife. Though Banks didn’t flee to Canada during the Vietnam War, there are autobiographical aspects to the novel. Like his creator, Leo Fife was born in New England to a working-class family, lived in Florida, and was married and divorced twice before he was thirty.
Banks puts Leo through physical agony (described often and in detail) and mental torture as he uses his last breaths to go over the many low points of his long life. That includes leaving two wives with small children, betraying one of his best friends, and lying to his third wife and that friend about why he exiled himself to Canada. Or did he? You realize as the book goes on that Leo’s stream-of-consciousness monologues are hallucinogenic and may be true, false, or a mixture of both.
The plot is intriguing, the characters well drawn, and the writing often sharp and evocative. But reading Foregone was a chore, primarily because the story zeroes in on a bunch of extremely disagreeable characters, primarily Leo himself and the documentarian who seems to be aiming to film his old mentor dying on camera, among other venalities.
And then there are the many distressing descriptions of Fife’s cancer-riddled body. To wit: “There’s nothing left of his life now, except what’s in his brain and the fluids that pass through his bowels and bladder and the cancer cells that are devouring his bone and flesh, munching on his organs, shutting them down one by one.”
That’s just one of at least a dozen depressing depictions of Leo in agony. If that’s your cup of tea, this novel will suit just fine.
THEY ALSO SERVED
When the journalist Julia Cooke started the research a few years ago for her second book, she was planning to write about civilian airline attendants—then known as stewardesses—who accompanied American troops into and out of Vietnam during the war. But as she dug into her subject, Cooke changed her focus and zeroed in on Pan American World Airways, the only U.S. airline that flew exclusively international routes.
The result is Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp.), a concise, engagingly written history of Pan Am in the 1960s and ’70s that centers on the airline’s stewardesses and their underappreciated role in the Vietnam War.
The stewardesses who worked R&R and chartered military flights into and out of Vietnam during the war amounted to “one of the largest groups of civilians to contribute to the Vietnam War,” Cooke notes. Hundreds of women who worked for Pan Am at its West Coast bases served on Vietnam War charters and on Pan Am’s regularly scheduled flights to and from Saigon.
“Some women had flown soldiers in during [the] troop buildup and out during the war’s final withdrawal,” she notes, “nine full years in and out of [the] combat theater.” A few—not entirely inappropriately—think of themselves as veterans of the war. All spent significant amounts of time in the war zone, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to find themselves under fire as their planes were landing or taking off.
Cooke effectively centers her narrative on five Pan Am stewardesses who volunteered for many Vietnam War troop flights: Karen Walker, Lynne Totten, Hazel Bowie, Tori Werner, and Clare Christiansen. All relate intriguing inside-baseball stories of what went into working on the flights, including the harrowing Baby Lift evacuation in April 1975. Among other things, I learned that the women were issued U.S. military ID cards, making them the equivalent of first lieutenants, mainly in the event that if they were captured by the enemy in Vietnam, they would qualify to be treated as Prisoners of War.
There are a few glitches in the book, such as referring to all U.S. troops in Vietnam as “soldiers” (sorry about that Marines, sailors, and airmen), and saying that R&Rs were for five days (some were for seven). But they’re minor. Overall, Come Fly with Me is a terrific book that offers a fascinating and revealing look at a segment of America’s Vietnam War effort that has been woefully underreported.
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