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November/December 2023  -   -  

A Man of Two Faces: Viet Nguyen's Stunning Memoir and 'Long Delayed' War Story

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new, first-person look at his life is like no memoir you’ve ever read. And that’s a good thing. A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial (Grove Press, 400 pp. $28) lives up to its subtitle in spades, as the acclaimed essayist, university professor, and novelist (The Sympathizer, The Committed) spins out a kaleidoscopic, impressionist look at his life. The narrative moves back and forth in time and is crammed with poetic asides, biting political observations, and brilliant wordplay—along with just enough childhood, adolescent, and adulthood reflections to put the book on your Memoir shelf.

At its heart, as Viet Nguyen tells us in the first chapter and again more than 300 pages later, the book is nothing if not “a war story… a long-delayed one, the unexploded ordnance of the past.” Two guesses what that war is.

Hint: It’s the one that brought four-year-old Nguyen Thanh Viet and his family to this country in 1975, fleeing the communist takeover of his homeland. Well, not all of his family. In fact, one of the book’s emotionally charged themes is that his family (his mother, father, and older brother) escaped Vietnam, leaving his adopted sister behind.

The book’s overriding theme is what another exceptional Vietnamese/American writer, Beth Nguyen (born Bich Minh Nguyen), has called “refugeetude.” That is, how being a refugee has an impact on virtually every aspect of one’s life. And that includes people like Viet Nguyen who have no memory of living in their homeland.

“History performs your caesarean, as it does for all refugees [to the U.S.],” he writes in A Man of Two Faces, “delivering you as the mythological subject, the amnesiac, restless, synthetic New American.” Later, he bores in on the duality of the book’s title rooted in his refugeetude:

“You are forever between that place and this place, displace and displaced, a state of unease that will always be home. You will never be quite comfortable anywhere, because what if homes are not only places where everything is happy and resolved, but also just as likely places of discomfort and disease. Welcome home. Love it or leave it.”

And there’s this on language and refugeetude: “You always stand somewhere inside and outside of every language you encounter. Orphaned in Vietnamese. Clumsy in French. Adopted in English. Master by Theory. Awed by Fiction.”

Viet Nguyen spends a lot of time dissecting the traumatic events of his life and those of his parents, including being briefly separated from them after arriving in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania by well-meaning but short-term-thinking refugee resettlement officials; his father’s PTSD; his parents’ hardships trying to make a life for their family in the United States (including being shot in a robbery in their mom-and-pop Vietnamese grocery in San Jose, California); his mother’s mental illness later in life; and what he and others call the “foundational racism” he and his family have faced from the moment they set foot in this country.

There are wryly comic moments in the book, along with lots of insights on subjects such as war movies, adolescence, love and marriage, politics (mainly in the U.S. in the present day and in communist Vietnam), war and genocide, colonization, and much more.

I am a giant fan of Viet Nguyen’s work, especially his two brilliant novels. I also stand in awe of his academic accomplishments. A former Guggenheim and McArthur Foundation (aka, Genius) fellowship recipient, he is a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. With a PhD from UC Berkeley, he holds the exalted academic position of University Professor and Chair of English and Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California.

I had a great conversation with Viet Nguyen for our “Dispatches” video web series not long after The Committed, a Vietnam-War-themed triumph of storytelling and the imagination, came out in 2021. I found him to be engaging, smart, and almost dispassionate about his life story when I asked about his childhood and growing up in Pennsylvania and California. So, it was startling to read about the emotional peaks and valleys he and his parents went through since coming to these shores.

I also was bowled over by how Viet Nguyen has shaped his personal emotional roller coaster into this intense, at times sardonically funny, insightful, very political story of his inner (and outer) life through the lens of refugeetude.


The extensive Vietnam War fiction canon contains precious few police procedurals. I love a good police procedural, and that’s what’s at the heart of journalist and editor—and VVA member—Peter Prichard’s new novel, Killing Grace: A Vietnam War Mystery (River Grove Books, 346 pp., $21.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle). This cleverly plotted, fast-moving thriller is set primarily in Vietnam during the war, and it also deals with the radical fringe of the antiwar movement at home.

Killing Grace stars Ben Kinkaid, a smart, dedicated but conflicted MP LT in Saigon who gets enmeshed in the titular murder case. Kincaid and his proficient partner Sgt. Elijah Jackson face more than a few daunting roadblocks in their quest to solve the crime, the murder of a young American civilian woman—a far-left antiwar activist—who turns up dead in the Saigon River on Christmas Eve 1967.

Said roadblocks include their incompetent, self-important, ticket-punching lifer colonel; a slippery CIA agent; a conniving GI clerk at Long Binh Post; a sinister Vietnamese arms dealer; and a coterie of antiwar radicals up to no good back home in D.C. Then there’s the war itself, which is heating up daily in Saigon and throughout South Vietnam from the time Ben arrives in-country in January 1967.

Peter Prichard served in Army intel during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour. More than a half-century later, he has done an enviable job of evoking that time and place—and spinning a twisting, compelling yarn that includes a surprise or two at the end.


Cheerful Obedience 
by Patrick McLaughlin

Patrick McLaughlin volunteered for the draft while still in college in the summer of 1966. By the following year, he was deep in the heart of Vietnam, serving with the 1st/18th of the 1st Infantry Division. His debut novel, Cheerful Obedience (BookBaby, 386 pp., $17.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), draws heavily from his wartime experiences.

The story follows Conor McKall, a young man from a proud military lineage. Combat comes naturally to McKall, much like a panther navigating the wilderness. He willingly takes on the perilous role of walking point and swiftly ascends to the position of squad leader. His leadership commands respect, and he forges meaningful bonds with his comrades.

As his tour progresses, McKall consistently puts himself in danger, leading by example. He navigates relationships with his superiors, many of whom are admirable figures that see his potential. A notable challenge is a new lieutenant with ambitions of making a name for himself, even if it means taking undue risks. The novel’s title, Cheerful Obedience, hints at McKall’s disposition when confronted with potentially fatal orders for his squad.

Every event in the book is grounded in realism. McKall, while exemplary in his role, undergoes experiences typical of many war veterans. For those who’ve served, the narrative will resonate with their memories. Conversely, readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War will gain valuable insights into the life of an American infantryman.

Had this novel been published in 1968, it might have served as an insightful guide for incoming troops. They’d learn practical jungle survival tips, from avoiding socks and underwear to steering clear of leeches, red ants, and panthers.

Also: Get an M-14 if you can, because your M-16 might fail at the worst possible moment. If you are an officer, do not try to put square pegs in round holes. Go to Australia for your R&R if you are not into debauchery.

With action in abundance and culminating in a gripping battle scene, Cheerful Obedience balances combat with moments of camaraderie. The unit, mostly harmonious, offers moments of respite and bonding. Some characters, like Annie the Donut Dolly, get a deeper dive. Yet, McLaughlin occasionally introduces characters who seem poised for development but then fade away.

Patrick McLaughlin, a VVA member, did not return from Vietnam with resentment in his heart. His work is neither antiwar nor filled with disdain for the enemy. Instead, he crafts a fictional but authentic representation of a 1st Infantry Division grunt’s perspective on the war. His website is pmmclaughlin.com




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