Small irritations make wonderful essay topics. Almost anyone can describe the annoyance of a faucet dripping somewhere in the wee hours of the morning—or the incessant buzzing of a solitary mosquito seeking dinner at midnight—or the soreness of a nagging hangnail when no manicure scissors are available. Words and images flow. When it comes to agonizing pain that keeps going on day after day, paralyzing fear, or unimaginable loss, however, the story is quite different. Words fail, memories shatter, eloquence dies on the tongue. Somehow there develops a distinct inverse relationship between the depth of our feelings and our ability to remember them and talk about them.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the great number of recent novels and memoirs about the Vietnam War. Veterans have finally received approval and encouragement to talk about their experiences, only to find that they cannot easily communicate their feelings to those who were not there with them. When an author succeeds in carrying his readers directly into the jungles, the rice paddies, the strangely impersonal hootches and dusty base camps, the world of drugs and blank-eyed mama-sans, the impact of his words makes us gasp for breath and struggle for understanding.
D. S. Lliteras has managed to do exactly that in his tersely-worded literary novel, Viet Man. His narrator has no name other than “Doc.” He is a navy corpsman; who he was back home doesn’t matter. He is young--just out of high school but equipped with perceptive powers of memory and observation. He arrives in Vietnam with no idea of what the war holds in store for him, but he is determined to take charge of this experience and meet it head on. As readers, we follow him through his first patrols, his first kill, his first visit to the local red light district, the growing recognition of his own mortality. When he describes a scene, his details are specific and honest. We don’t just learn what’s going on; we see it and smell it, feel it and hear it. In peaceful moments he speaks to us in sentences and paragraphs. When danger threatens or fear overwhelms, his mental state retreats into disjointed phrases or single words. We learn about his broken romance back home only when something triggers his own memories. And in the end, we accompany him when he returns stateside, only to find that those at home cannot begin to understand that he now lives in a different world than the one they know.
This is a powerful novel, eloquent while using the simplest of vocabulary and poetic in its clear-eyed imagery. Read it. Your understanding of this tumultuous period of our history will be forever enriched.
Review by Carolyn Schriber, MWSA Reviewer
Viet Man is about the transformation of a young man who enlisted in the Navy during the Vietnam War, was trained as a hospital corpsman, was transferred into the Marine Corps, then sent to Vietnam where he joined the elite First Recon. It is a first person narrative of alternating episodes experienced in the rear and in the bush. In the rear, Doc encounters a straw-haired mid-western farm boy who shows him how to prepare a meal of long-rats, and Loopie, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who shares a guilt-torn confession that borders on confabulation. In the bush, Doc experiences the terror of accidentally releasing a live grenade among his men, of rushing to rescue a wounded marine, and of sharing a quiet conversation in a bunker with Trang, a South Vietnamese soldier. After being assigned to the Recon Dive Team and attending the Navy diving school in the Philip-pines, he returns to Vietnam were he engages in numerous combat dives and river operations. At the end of his tour, he is processed out of the military. And upon his return to his hometown as a veteran, he faces a jarring reception of insolence, indifference, and fragmented flashbacks. In Viet Man, D.S. Lliteras unlocks the inner mystery of a man’s combat experience. It is poetic and haunting, authentic and amusing. It is a story told by a man who ultimately survives the war and returns to his homeland, but another country will forever dwell in his soul.
Viet Man (Introspection): The bones of war strip a combatant down to the essentials: neutral mind, disjointed memories, unclear emotions.
The truth about remembering war is the inability to be factually accurate or objective. No combat veteran is able to convey to a civilian what it is all about—it’s impossible. We remember glimpses of war, punctuated by actual truth. The memory of an incident is usually fragmentary. Sometimes these fragments are long, but they are never whole. In fact, a war story that is too whole is usually suspect. A story that reveals too much either comes from a man who wasn’t there or from a man who has been beguiled by the myth surrounding his post war.
Remembering is one thing, collective remembering is another— it’s not you, it’s what others want you to be; it’s not about truth, it’s about glory. And that’s never the true story. Nobody should want to be more than the truth.
Nobody should want the glory of war.
Historical Fiction/ Literary Fiction
Format: Soft Cover (and Kindle)
Page count: 193