David A. Willson, The REMF Returns
(Seattle: Black Heron Press) 1992. $19.95 (cloth; $9.95, paper).
Reviewed by David E. James, Division of Critical Studies, School of Cinema, University of Southern California
David Willson's The REMF Returns is a novel in the form of the diary of an American soldier in Vietnam in 1976, serving out the short end of his tour as a rear-echelon clerk. Continuing the project of his previous REMF Diary, it seems unassuming, but actually it's a real intervention in the hegemonic mythologization of the invasion. The drama recorded here is not one of action, but of inaction, of mundane routine interrupted by petty jealousies and trivial encounters. Defeat occurs, not on the battlefield or even in the bordello, but in the typing pool; and triumph is a good tune heard on the radio.
The importance of Willson's mode appears initially as a matter of literary innovation. Even more than in Michael Herr's version, the Vietnam he produces is one not of primal confrontation with primeval nature, but of a mass-media mishmash of endless textuality; indeed, nothing in the narrator's experience is as real as the novels he reads and the TV he watches while off-duty. And while like virtually the entire Vietnam narrative industry, the REMF sequence prioritizes the enlisted soldier's first-person account of his actual experience, here that empiricism only deflates the pretensions of the generic norm. In these matters, literary qualities translate directly into political utility, specifically as an antidote to the imperialist bombast of the Rambo clones, an ideological camp that in fact can easily accommodate ostensible opponents like Oliver Stone.
But a more general property of Willson's mode is also coming into focus. Given the narrator's obsession with rock and roll, it's right that, in the year when Nirvana shredded the collusion of corporate rock, the most interesting perspective on Vietnam, Inc. should be an indie retrovirus from Seattle. Like his homeboys, Willson is distinctly Sub Pop, preoccupied with half-pleasures snatched from under the detritus of mass media and in the gaps between cursory gestures toward social intercourse. And he's underground in Dostoevsky's sense as well: "I'm bitter, bitter and whiny," he remarks accurately; but it's the whiny that makes the bitterness interesting. And so both the novel and the narrator find themselves stuck in fin-de-siècle accidie, in the ironic dog-days, not of the Johnson years, but of the Bush years. The book must have been written in a recycled Brady Bunch t-shirt. The narrator knows the generic Vietnam-exploitation maven "likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun, but he don't know what it means." But he also knows that these days all he can say is "Nevermind."
Viet Nam Generation, Inc. and Burning Cities Press published Willson's REMF trilogy prequel, In the Army Now, in 1995.