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January/February 2024  -   -  

Absolution and Resurrection: More Great Fiction from Alice McDermott and Michael Connelly

There were few events more portentous—or dramatic—in the course of the American war in Vietnam than the November 1963 American-blessed military coup against South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngô Ðình Diệm. Coming three weeks before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the coup, which resulted in the assassination of Diệm and his brother Ngô Ðình Nu, ushered in years of political chaos and led to the ensuing escalation of the conflict between American forces and and the Vietnamese communists.

The renowned American novelist Alice McDermott’s new book, Absolution (Farrar, Strauss, 336 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, e-Book) is set in Saigon and its environs during that tumultuous year. From page one, it’s evident that the Diệm coup will play a role in the story. Spoiler-ish alert, however: that seminal event is not the focal point of this only-faintly political story.

In Absolution, her ninth book, McDermott instead zooms her celebrated novelist’s eye in on what life was like in Saigon that fateful year for the wives of civilians posted to South Vietnam. That scenario may sound dry and inconsequential, but McDermott—whose 1998 novel Charming Billy won the National Book Award for Fiction—has crafted a compelling story with well-sketched characters, a steadily moving plot, and more than a whiff of the brewing war that is to come.

Main character Patricia Kelly is a young, middle-class kindergarten teacher who is recently married. She and her new husband, an engineer working with the U.S. Navy in the budding war, are new in town. Patricia realizes she’s in over her 23-year-old head as soon as she comes under the spell of her polar opposite, Charlene. A well-heeled mother of three, Charlene is the manipulative, bossy wife of a corporate bigwig. She anoints the newbie “Tricia,” which Patricia is too intimidated to challenge.

The plot then spins out into manifold directions, as told by Patricia/Tricia. It includes a scheme of Charlene’s involving Barbie dolls and áo dais, a visit to a leprosarium, various dealings in the black market, marital issues, and more. The Buddhist uprising springs up. A selfless Army doctor and a goodhearted G.I. named Dominic who works in an Army hospital play supporting roles in the tale. All of those characters and the book’s other players—including several Vietnamese women—are fully fleshed out and believable.

The tone shifts markedly about three-fourths of the way through the novel as we are given a flash-forward, narrated by Charlene’s grown daughter. The narrative loses some steam with the abrupt change of voice, but McDermott redeems it all with a surprise near the end and a shift back to Tricia’s voice to close the book.

Any book set in Saigon before the big buildup almost begs to be compared to Graham Greene’s masterpiece, The Quiet American. What Absolution has in common with Greene’s novel is McDermott’s evocative scene setting in which she captures the physical environment of post-colonial Saigon and the emotional climate of her characters. Without reading too much into one sentence (and one word) in the book, you could say that McDermott offers at least the possibility that Patricia Murphy may be a version of Alden Pyle, Greene’s title character, the naïve, idealistic CIA agent who comes to grief in Saigon in 1955.

At the very least, McDermott is paying homage to Greene when Tricia describes herself from another American wife’s point of view as “a quiet, shy, yet plucky American girl with that quintessential, somewhat naïve, but nevertheless admirable American virtue: a good and generous heart.”


I was more than mildly concerned about my favorite literary homicide detective (and one-time Vietnam War tunnel rat) Harry Bosch a year ago after finishing Michael Connelly’s captivating, best-selling novel, Desert Star. In that book, Bosch, who had recently retired after 40 years as a cop, helped LAPD solve two heinous cold case murders. What bothered me came near the end, when Bosch underwent treatment for what appeared to be life-threatening bone cancer. I fretted that Connelly might be paving the way for Harry’s demise.

Then I learned via a Bill McCloud Arts of War post that Connelly said in a recent webcast that he had had second thoughts about putting Bosch in such mortal danger. I then picked up Connelly’s new Lincoln Lawyer novel, the fast-moving, compelling Resurrection Walk (Little, Brown, 416 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) and breathed a sigh of relief when I read in the first few pages that while Harry is still undergoing treatment at UCLA Medical Center, things are looking good on the health front.

You could even say that Michael Connelly has resurrected Harry Bosch in Resurrection Walk.

As crucial as it is for Harry Bosch fans, his health is a relatively minor side plot in the book. The main plot centers on a cold case that Harry revives when he comes to believe that a woman imprisoned for killing her police officer husband was framed. Harry talks his half-brother, the flamboyant lawyer Mickey Haller (who works out of his Lincoln Navigator), into taking the case and does yeoman’s work, leading the investigation that culminates in an extended dramatic trial which closes the book.

Haller tells Harry that his goal is to conjure up a “resurrection walk,” which he describes as when “the manacles come off and the last metal doors slide open like the gates of heaven, and a man or woman declared innocent walks into the waiting arms of family resurrected in life and the law.”

As he has in recent Bosch books, Connelly includes a few references to Harry’s Vietnam War days. In making a point about Harry’s troubled youth in and out of detention centers, for example, he writes: “He was so slightly built as a teenager that a few years later he was put on an Army tunnel crew in Vietnam. His size was an advantage while moving through the dark and narrow tunnels used by the Viet Cong. But it had made him an easy target in juvenile detention.”

Later, we learn that Harry has a “rat tat on his arm,” evidently in honor of what he did in the war, and that he still dreams of himself “as a younger man, moving through a tunnel with a dying flashlight.”

Harry Bosch is now a retired but active senior citizen. At times, as Connelly puts it, he feels “tired and old.” I prefer to think of him as alive and well, and look forward to the pleasure of reading the next Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novel—and many more after that.


Wolfhounds: Vietnam Alumni 
by Gary L. Huber

U.S. Army Lt. Gary L. Huber suffered a horrendous neck wound in Vietnam and four of the men in his platoon were killed in the battle at Hóc Môn near Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Refusing evacuation to Japan, Huber rehabilitated in Củ Chi rather than transfer out of the 27th Infantry Regiment, aka the Wolfhounds. During his final six months in-country, Huber commanded a weapons platoon, served as executive officer in the 25th Infantry Division, and taught at the Lightning Replacement Training School.

Wolfhounds: Vietnam Alumni: A Young Man’s Trip to War and the Journey Back (Outskirts Press, 237 pp. $29.95, paper; $5, Kindle) is VVA member Gary Huber’s autobiography, telling his unique and exciting story while also giving us an insight into his thoughts about Vietnam, the country, in both war and peace.

Although the book describes everyday events, it quickly becomes clear that Huber underplays his accomplishments and writes his own story not as that of a war hero but of an ordinary, humble person. He portrays himself as an accident-prone young man and a quietly introspective adult in his post-war years. After coming home from Vietnam, Huber describes how he earned BA and MA degrees, married, and taught at both a grade school and at the college level.

He once told a fellow teacher that he wore a “figurative mask that I put on every day.” Huber donned the mask to arm himself and his family against negative comments about Vietnam War veterans. He explains that he realized he had two choices in reacting to trying situations: getting angry and destructive or maintaining self-control and finding positive ways to deal with issues.

In 1995, Channel One News selected Huber as a schoolteacher/Vietnam War veteran representative for a televised profile that ran on the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The selection included a trip to Vietnam which turned out to be more than an 8,000-mile journey.

On reaching Hóc Môn, where he had been shot, Huber felt a deep yet freeing surge of compassion. He describes his emotions as “sorrow about the four guys from my platoon who died that day, sadness for the ten of us who were wounded,” and compassion for “the soldiers from the other side who were killed or wounded in that action.” He let go of the pain and anguish that he had been carrying for 27 years.

When Gary Huber returned to Flint, Michigan, fellow veterans and teachers, students, bands, the media, politicians, and friends welcomed him home with several days of unexpected gratitude for his service. Retiring in 2004 after 31 years of teaching, he became a veterans’ advocate and has taken an active role in Chapter 175 of the VVA in Genesee County, Michigan.

Gary Huber’s Wolfhounds: Vietnam Alumni is the story of a good guy who becomes even better




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