Regarding as a whole the seven stories that make up H. Lee
Barness Gunning for Ho,I had the sense that, from the first
story to the penultimate, I was watching a writers growth, in self-confidence
and in his ability to control his material. Nonetheless, it would still
have been better if the first three stories had been omitted, so different
are they from the other four. I wonder, in fact, if these three were written
long before the others; the writing is so much less assured in them. Though
set in Vietnam during the American war there, they have little to do with
that war, or with twentieth-century warfare at all. They remind me of
inferior Kipling, or of the tales of the French Foreign Legion I read
when I was a kid. They have more to do with the lore of a nineteenth-century
colonial army than with the lives of more or less contemporary American
soldiers at war.
The fourth story, "A Return," is genuinely affecting, reminiscent
of some of Steinbecks stories in The Long Valley.Here Barness
strength as a writer begins to show. His depictions of weather and landscape
are at times superb, and, in this collection, nowhere better than in "Plateau
Lands," the fifth story. Glenn, the protagonist:
watches lightning march in columns from the west and breathes
in the air
. He wishes the storm away. It reminds him of the closetlike
rain forests. Rain splatters forcefully off the tiled roof as it had
in Quang Ngai Province, smothering the ground
plateau lands smelling
of decay, infernal heel-sucking mud, the tedious thip, thip
of rain on a poncho hood. The land had seemed in a state of continual
oxidation and the clay beneath his feet like rust.
It is the next story, "Tunnel Rat," however, that makes
the book. In this 59-page novella, Barnes makes up for whatever sins of
craft he may have committed earlier. "Tunnel Rat" is one of those truer-than-true
stories, in which the facts are only a conduit to the underlying emotional
truth. A platoon:
measured days by casualties
. Any progress in the
war had little effect on them
. Body count didnt matter.
A dozen, a hundred, two hundred dead didnt stop the war, didnt
slow it, and the only territory they rightfully claimed was in front
of their sight blades. They held what they held because of firepower.
This was absolute. The platoon could dispense as much havoc as one of
Genghis Khans entire armies, but all that did was keep some of
them alive to the next day.
The platoon, in this depiction, is an army writ small, beaten
not only by the enemy but by its own leaders, military and civilian, who
have sacrificed them without purpose. In another passage, Rowe, through
whose eyes the events of the story are seen,
asked the door gunner if they could go back for his journal.
The gunner pointed to his ears and then the rotating blades and shouted,
"Wont be long!" He seemed to want a response, so Rowe nodded and
said Wilt Chamberlain was the best
. Passing Hoc Mon the choppers
took ground fire, green tracers arching upward gracefully and fading
away. A round dinged the side panel and ricocheted off the door gunners
helmet. He looked at Rowe as if to say what luck. Wont be long,
The two events--the inability to communicate accompanied
by the cynical pretense that what you are saying does convey meaning to
someone else, and the awe felt upon witnessing one of lifes (or
deaths) senseless randomnesses, but reduced to a concept of luck--touched
so closely on some of my own experiences that I have to assume they are
commonly held by at least those veterans who were in combat.
In "Tunnel Rat," Barnes gets everything right--character,
theme, movement, all the things that make this story a compact gem comparable,
say, to James Joness The Pistol."Gunning for Ho," though
placed last in the collection, may be considered a transition piece, a
mix of the Kiplingesque tale of the first stories and the accomplished
realism of "Tunnel Rat."
SOLDIER IN PARADISE IS SO HIGHLY POLISHED, and reads
so effortlessly, that less than halfway through I had given the author
my complete confidence that he would do nothing egregiously wrong with
it. Even for a reader like myself, obsessed with craft, this is an extremely
well-sculpted novel. It is a story told by a former soldier who, in middle
age, recognizes that he has fallen short of what he had wanted for himself,
which was to be "great
the best there is at--at something."
He does not know now whether he has failed because of his Vietnam War
experience or because of the baggage he was carrying even before he went
away to war--including the death of his mother and the subsequent distancing
of his father.
The novel ends with something like resolution. Without giving
it away, Ill say that it is a good ending for a reader who does
not want to be discomforted, who wants to believe that everything works
out in the long run. But while not egregiously off, the ending plays false
with life. Yes, I know, this is fiction. Still, the book overall cuts
so close to the bone that I expected its ending also to elicit, if not
pain, at least the ache that permeates the rest of the book. It is ironic
that such a fine novel, by depicting resolution in so neat a package,
is made to miss its mark.
Even more than Gunning for Ho this book takes issue
with authority, but also with anti-authority:
[I]f I have anything to blame on Vietnam, its that
I lost respect for authority. There was a son of a bitch calling the
shots at every job I held
every boss I had was that idiot supply
sergeant in Bien Hoa, or maybe a congressman calling me a criminal for
doing what hed told me to do.
All my college friends were finding ways to evade the
draft. It was unthinkable to go into the army, as for more than a decade
afterward, it was unthinkable to be a veteran. It wasnt cool.
The two books have a number of other things in common. Both
were written, or at least published, by veterans nearly a quarter of a
century after the end of the war, though Mort published a part of his
novel fifteen years ago, and Barnes published one of the stories in Gunning
for Ho eight years before the book came out. Both books, in large
part, are about American infantrymen in despair and defeat. While the
reader may think that a serious work of fiction about the war could go
no other way, Id like to point out that Ward Justs Stringer
focuses on the moral ambivalence of the war, and Kent Andersons
Sympathy for the Devil is about men caught up and enraptured by
the violence of war itself.
Both Soldier in Paradise and Gunning for Ho are
weighted with grief. Almost all the best fiction that has come from this
war conveys loss--loss of friends, of comrades, not of the war. The only
exceptions I can think of are David A. Willsons comic novels, REMF
Diary and The REMF Returns.It is possible that if the United
States had won the war our grief, and the anger that accompanies it, would
not be as severe as it has been. But judging from Bao Ninhs The
Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Huongs Novel Without a Name,grief
and anger are not the exclusive province of the losers.
The reader may wonder why, with so many books published
about the American war in Vietnam--John Clark Pratt, in the afterword
to Gunning for Ho,says there are more than seven hundred--we need
two more. But the way book publishing works today, few of these hundreds
are in print. Soldier in Paradise or "Tunnel Rat" may reach readership
that has not read earlier war fiction. The fact that both of these books
were published by university presses indicates that trade publishing generally
does not see books on Vietnam as commercially viable. While neither of
the two reviewed here is without flaw, both deserve to be read and their
publishers should be commended for bringing them out.
most recent books are Sergeant
Dickinson and Prisoners.
Originally published in the Summer 2000
issue of Boston Review