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 Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Jeff Danziger. Rising Like the Tucson.

Doubleday, New York 1991.

Reviewed by Nancy Anisfield, English Department, St. Michael's College.

The undercurrent of black humor that charges Jeff Danziger's recently published Rising Like the Tucson differs sharply from the stark cynicism of The Short Timers or the psychedelic madness of Meditations in Green. Danziger's novel derives from the tradition of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and, like Heller's 1961 novel, this satire of the war spills over into a satire of the American culture that spawned the greed and naivete so influential in determining the outcome of that war.

The central character of Danziger's satire is Lieutenant James Christopher (known as Lieutenant Kit), an incompetent, vacant-brained intelligence officer stationed sixty kilometers north of Saigon in the ragged town of Phuoc Vinh.

Kit was an officer only because he supposedly understood Vietnamese. In the late 1960s the United States was desperate to Vietnamize the war--something it had neglected to do until it was too late. Nixon had promised to do this, and he told the army that they better get cracking on this project. The army's first problem was to tell the Vietnamese.

It is during this tricky time of 'Vietnamization' that Phuoc Vinh becomes the local headquarters for "the great real estate consortium." Kit's father, a wealthy real estate developer who profited handsomely in the Philippines after World War II, plots a similar success in Viet Nam, driving Kit to the brink of nervous hysteria. Catch 22's Milo appears as Lieutenant Stevenson, a man whose greed overwhelms any chance he has of being a decent human being. The real estate plan drives him to visions of a stock portfolio as fat as that of his draft-dodging high school friends.

... Kit told Stevenson everything. All about the real estate consortium. All about the partners back in Connecticut who were putting up money to buy Saigon real estate out from under the war refugees to build shopping centers and golf courses for Japanese businessmen after the war... Stevenson listened, staring at the money, studying the intricate engraving, " the United States of America," it said across the top of the bill. Powerful words. Wonderful money. Of course, buying Saigon made sense.

Greed is not presented as an exclusively American trait. Sergeant Xuan of the National Police is certainly self-interested and manipulative. He has no sense of loyalty to the South Vietnamese, but he warrants little condemnation in light of Stevenson or in light of the maniacal American Lieutenant Toomey, who killed eight of his own men.

Among the other characters, only Major Bedford, the well-fed and bloated representative of the Old Army, is somewhat endearing. He is continually startled by his homosexual attraction for Kit, longs for a Purple Heart, and is delighted by the realization that he actually gets to plan a real combat mission over real hostile territory.

Rising Like the Tucson is not just an entertaining Catch-22 clone, however. Its vision is much bleaker, more desolate. Kit does not possess the puckish qualities of Heller's Yossarian. He is somewhat well-meaning and he is trying to survive the war, but Kit is not, like Yossarian, ultimately likable. Kit's "fear of contradiction, the desire to avoid confrontation and a lack of conviction one way or the other" explain his (our?) inability to accomplish anything positive in this endeavor.

Kit also never seems to learn from the corrupt systems around him. He neither triumphs over those systems nor escapes beyond them. In this way, Kit's stupidity and worthlessness deny him the archetypal role of the satire's 'innocent.' Unlike Candide, Gulliver, or Yossarian, Kit significantly has not persistent optimism or vaguely noble characteristics to admire in the face of war's brutality or society's corruption. He seems, rather to be that society's end product: an occasional good intention, a monster-load of anxiety, and a superlative quantity of clumsiness.

The key to Kit's purpose in this novel is offered by Lieutenant Starret in the first chapter. When he thinks to himself that making Lieutenant Kit an intelligence officer was just one of the "endless mistakes" the army had made in its pursuit of victory, Starret also muses that "the mistakes in the late 1960s had built upon the mistakes in the early 1960s, all on top of one another, so that the war teetered like a rotten tree waiting to fall." Danziger's story of Phuoc Vinh is the story of one limb of that tree.

An 'innocent' might display many different reactions to the rot of this war. If Kit's experiences led him to a "don't mean nothing" attitude, such cynicism would give him stature in an existential world view. If he maintained a "best of all possible worlds" perspective, his faith would be admirable. If he made an absurd but optimistic gestureas Yossarian does, paddling off to Swedenhis naivete would inspire a sense of hope. Kit, however, does nothing. His lack of response, given the satirical context of this novel, proves Starret's judgement that, "Innocence was gone. No one was innocent." Danziger gives us a close look at the inside of that rotted tree limb. Kit has no passion, no idealism, no reactionary cynicism, not even a self-righteous morality or operating code of ethics. He lacks the innocence from which, Danziger, suggests, a response or attitude might have taken root to save that tree from rotting completely.

In support of this pessimistic perspective, the novel contains many truly dark moments to offset the colorful ones. One of the most disturbing occurs when Xuan and Kit interrogate a young girl, no more than twelve, slapping her repeatedly, raising rows of welts on her swollen cheeks. Kit "outranked Xuan, he thought, and if he disapproved he ought to say something. But he waited. Maybe that had been the last slap." Kit's passivity and Xuan's cruelty in this small scene provide a focus on the war's brutality more effectively than all the artillery explosions and satchel charges of the novel's climax.

The main drawback to the novel, particularly to those familiar with Viet Nam war fiction, is the predictability of the plot. It is inevitable that the base at Phuoc Vinh will be overrun. Inevitable not only because it is foreshadowed in the declining base security and the tenuous success of Vietnamization, but also because anyone who has read any Viet Nam war novels by American would know that the plots of these novels nearly always build to a final cataclysmic firefight. The sense of culmination in this type of climax seems inappropriate to characterizing this war. Fortunately, Danziger does not allow for heroic sacrifice, epiphany, or tragic loss during the final moments of graphic carnage. The next day, Kit is the same. The limb is still rotted and the tree teeters a bit further.

Danziger, political cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, was an intelligence officer with the First Air Cavalry in 1970 and 1971. His novel presents a distinctly American view of the war. It gives some insight into the Vietnamese's suffering but no perspective on the broader political or strategic issues of the war. What it does show, with both humor and eloquence, is the American sense of money-will-buy-all, an unethical alienation of individuals from their sense of reason and morality.

Rising Like the Tucson rakes the ashes of the Viet Nam war. Finding no phoenix, this novel exposes the deep ethnocentric coercion with which the United Statesmilitarily and economicallyexploited the Vietnamese and misjudged the war it was fighting.

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