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Gunning for Ho
H. Lee Barnes
University of Nevada Press, $15 (paper)
Soldier in Paradise
Southern Methodist University Press, $19.95 (cloth)
Regarding as a whole the seven stories that make up H. Lee Barnes’s Gunning for Ho,I had the sense that, from the first story to the penultimate, I was watching a writer’s 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 Steinbeck’s stories in The Long Valley. Here Barnes’s 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 closet-like 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 didn’t matter. A dozen, a hundred, two hundred dead didn’t stop the war, didn’t 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 Khan’s 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, "Won’t 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 gunner’s helmet. He looked at Rowe as if to say what luck. Won’t be long, Rowe thought.
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 life’s (or death’s) 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 Jones’s 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, I’ll 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, it’s 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 he’d 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 wasn’t 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 Hoeight 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, I’d like to point out that Ward Just’s Stringer focuses on the moral ambivalence of the war, and Kent Anderson’s 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. Willson’s comic novels, REMF Diaryand 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 Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Huong’s 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.
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