Wayne Karlin, US
(New York: Henry Holt) 1993.
Reviewed by Renny Christopher, English Department, California State University at Stanislaus
On the day that I finished reading Wayne Karlin's new novel, US, which takes as its plot-motor a quest for the mythical MIAs, I was driving across town here in "liberal" Santa Cruz, California, and for a few blocks I was behind an older brown Volvo that had two POW bumper stickers on it. One said "Prisoners of War: Bring Them Home." The other had the black POW/MIA flag and the legend: "They're fighting for your freedom." The car also had a third bumper sticker that said "MARINES" in large letters against a jungle camouflage background. (I guess the bumper sticker, like the car, predates the most recent war and its desert camouflage.)
It is the ghosts of the war in Viet Nam who continue to haunt us in what Karlin calls the "national religion" of the POW/MIA "issue" that drive this novel. The main character, Loman (yes, named after Death of a Salesman's everyman figure), a REMF vet who now runs a bar in Bangkok, is known as Kon Ahn Harm Kon Die, "The One Who Carries the Dead," because of his trips in search of the MIAs. But even he has come to see them as an illusion, although his desire is for them to be real. It's only the bungling, always-one-step-behind Congressman Mundy, resurrected from Karlin's previous novel, who believes that they're real. But this is no government-conspiracy narrative, like Rambo. Karlin's government, personified by Mundy, isn't capable of creating anything so coherent and organized as a conspiracy. The funniest scenes in this very funny book are those in which various people make fun of Mundy, who never quite realizes he's being made fun of. The difference between him and Loman is that Loman eventually gets the joke--the jokes played on him by the war, the Vietnamese, his own government, etc.
One of the singular things about Karlin is that he is a believer in ghosts. As in Lost Armies, ghosts speak in this novel, which is populated by nats, mischievous spirits which live in Burma, where the MIA quest takes Loman and Mundy. The consciousnesses of the living are possessed by the consciousnesses of the dead. One of the names given America by Chinese immigrants was "Land Without Ghosts." Perhaps we are now becoming an old enough culture to have ghosts; perhaps ghosts have accompanied Asian immigrants here, to bring this land a depth it didn't previously have.
Loman agrees to undertake Mundy's MIA trip to raise some cash for his bar in Bangkok. But what he gets caught up in leaves him spiritually, if not physically, MIA himself. The Americans are not in control. On the Asians' own turf it is they who know what's going on, they who manipulate the Americans to their own ends. The Thais, Burmese and tribespeople have "an agenda of their own."
The action moves toward a mythic figure in the jungle, a shape-shifting rebel leader, a magnet for the missing, for the lost armies, Taksin. The major conflict of the novel turns out to be Taksin's fight with Aung Khin, an opium dealer. The MIA quest of Loman, Mundy, and Mundy's pet spook, Weyland, who firmly believes that he is in control, turns out to be merely a sideshow, just as America's war in Viet Nam was a sideshow, an eddy in ongoing Southeast Asian politics.
Many lost armies (an idea from Karlin's previous novel) appear in US: the defeated Kuomintang armies who fled south after the communist victory in China, the ghosts of the American armies, and an army of former prostitutes--girls sold by their families, who give the book something of a feminist slant. It's not giving anything away to say that nobody finds any real, living American MIAs--it's clear from the outset that only the willfully ignorant, like Mundy, believe living MIAs could be found.
Mundy is a great character. Karlin uses him to poke fun at the "I missed the quintessential experience of my generation" syndrome that has recently arisen among non-veterans, as well as to poke fun at the U.S. government and its committees, investigations, and fact-finding trips. (at the center of the novel is the idea "There were no facts, only perceptions"). The funniest scene in this very funny novel takes place in Loman's bar in Bangkok, where the three veterans who hang out there telling war stories make fun of Mundy, who doesn't get the joke. Fat Al, Helicopter Harry, and Chuckie's-in-Love form a sort of chorus in the novel. When Mundy asks them to join his team, Fat Al answers:
The novel is full of gems like that. Perhaps the best of them is what Taksin says to Loman when Loman has finally figured out what's going on, but is still resisting: "Then it isn't truth you want, Loman--it's innocence. Are still that American?" The innocence Loman wishes for is the innocence proclaimed by the owner of that Volvo with the POW/MIA bumper stickers.
Unlike so many writers of the war who have been retelling the same narratives of "lost innocence" over and over for so many years, Karlin is really writing fiction, imaginative fiction. And by writing fiction, Karlin is creating new insights, new ways of seeing. US is definitely worth reading.