Contemporary Detective Fiction and the Viet Nam War
James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain (New York: Pocket Books) 1987; Heaven's Prisoners (New York: Pocket) 1988; Black Cherry Blues (New York: Avon) 1989; A Morning for Flamingos (New York: Avon) 1990.
Charles Durden, The Fifth Law of Hawkins (New York: TOR) 1990.
Gustav Hasford, A Gypsy Good Time (New York: Washington Square Press) 1992.
Sharyn McCrumb, If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (New York: Ballantine) 1990.
Carsten Stroud, Sniper's Moon (New York: Bantam) 1990.
Reviewed by Kalí Tal
Two of my favorite writers of Viet Nam war literature recently published new novels: Gustav Hasford's Gypsy Good Time came out this year, and Charles Durden's The Fifth Law of Hawkins was published in 1990 and issued in paperback in 1991. Both Hasford and Durden were correspondents in Viet Nam. Hasford was a combat correspondent who served with the First Marine Division in 1968, and Durden was a freelancer in 1966-67.
Durden's Viet Nam war novel was titled No Bugles No Drums (New York: Avon) and appeared in 1976--a fairly early contribution to the genre. The first-person narrative is dictated by Pvt. Jamie "Hawk" Hawkins, drafted into the Army and sent off with his unit to guard the "Song My Swine Project"--a pig farm outside Da Nang.
No Bugles is a revision of both the John Wayne myth and Twain's Huck Finn. Self-conscious and darkly humorous, Durden paints an absurd picture of the war, foreshadowing Hawk's decision to walk out on the whole enterprise (light out for the territories) with an opening salvo directed at Wayne himself. Told that he and his unit are headed for Viet Nam, Hawk notes: "I also wondered, just for a moment, what would happen if we all went back to bed. No way. We'd all seen too many John Wayne movies. Jesus, what he coulda done for the anti-war movement if he'd spent only half his time hockin' up that drawl to say fine things like 'Fuck you, Cap'n. If these little Jap bastards want this island so bad,they can have it. I'm hitchin' me a ride back to the fleet.' With that he throws down his flamethrower'n wades into the surf. Fat chance." Hawk himself eventually does exactly what he wishes Wayne had done: "I told everybody the war was over, that I was goin' home. Nobody started arguin' with me till I got to Danang. The farther away I got from the fightin', the harder it was to make people believe the war was finished" (285). His friends dead and his life shattered, Hawk takes his discharge and tells the Army "to go fuck themselves, because about the only thing subject Hawkins had left was his unshakeable bad attitude." (287)
Hasford's Short Timers, (New York: Bantam) published in 1979, shares many of No Bugles' features. Like Hawk, Hasford's first person narrator is also a man with a sense of humor; in fact, he is named for it--Joker. Hasford's humor is perhaps even more macabre than Durden's, and it incorporates similar images, reveling in the the contradiction between the mass market culture of the U.S. and the reality of life during wartime. Both use as their refrain advertising slogans, and it's hard to imagine that Hasford was not speaking directly to Durden when he chose for his motto, the phrase "Things go better with Coke,"--doubtless an answer to Durden's slogan (quoted with permission of Pepsico, Inc.), "You've Got a Lot to Live and Pepsi's Got a Lot to Give." Both employ the device of a "John Wayne" character--the best friend of the narrator--who does not survive the war. In Hasford's case this is, literally, Cowboy, whose need to adhere to the wartime "script" ("Marines never abandon their dead or wounded") is the cause of his death. Joker breaks this mythic cycle graphically--he puts a bullet through Cowboy's head, putting him out of his misery as one would kill a beloved, but now rabid dog. For Durden, this character is "The Boy Ranger," killed in a foolish heroic gesture which Hawk both understands and rejects, and which motivates his decision to walk out on the war altogether.
I've always seen these two books as being closely related, both in style and content. The author's new books, too, seem to run in parallel. Both are "detective" novels: Hasford's A Gypsy Good Time is the first-person narrative of Dowdy Lewis, Jr., hardboiled, gun-toting Viet Nam vet bounty hunter and book dealer (an occupation which may or may not inspire amusement among those who remember Hasford's arrest for allegedly stealing approximately 10,000 library books from L.A. area libraries) who gets mixed up with the usual leggy redhead with a mysterious secret; Durden's Fifth Law of Hawkins sees the return of narrator Jamie Hawkins, whose trip to the territories has apparently landed him in jail on a marijuana charge in Mexico. He is rescued by Juliet, a leggy strawberry blonde with a mysterious secret. Both Hasford and Durden retain their apparently truly unshakeable bad attitudes, even in novels written more than twenty years after their war, Durden going so far as to conclude his book with the revelation that the Fifth and Final Law of Hawkins is: "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." While Short Timers and No Bugles move their narrators from innocence to experience in a revision of the tradition of the bildungsroman, Gypsy Good Time and The Fifth Law are curiously static. The protagonists are jaded and cynical and essentially hopeless at the beginning, and their disillusion is merely confirmed at the end. When you're right, you're right.
In their earlier novels, women played very little part in the plot, appearing as incidental and enabling characters, facilitators of the story. The focus was on the relationship between the protagonist and his "best friend." In both novels, the homoerotic nature of the relationship is explictly defined. In Short Timers it is negatively defined by the text's constant homophobic references and the fantasy that Cowboy and Joker spin out, in which Joker will fuck Cowboy's sister. (The fact that Cowboy tells Joker, right before his death, that he has no sister underlines the erotic bond between the two men.) In Durden's book, the erotic attraction between Hawk and the Boy Ranger is noted by the narrator himself, when he asks a prostitute if he can take a picture of her back to his friend and she asks Hawk if he is in love with the Boy Ranger. Hawk answers, "Prob'ly. But that ain't acceptable" (167). In both books the body of the love object (which, in homoerotic attractions, is also the body of the self) is violently penetrated: the gunshot which explode's Cowboy's head is graphically described, as is the shrapnel blast which severs the Boy Ranger's head from his body, and the death of the loved one signals the spiritual death of the protagonist.
Fifth Law and Gypsy Good Time feature protagonists who already (dis?)embody that state of death-in-life. Such protagonists haunt the genre of detective fiction, and it is no accident that both Durden and Hasford have chosen to adopt its conventions. For the detective novel is a novel of the man alone, quite frequently depending upon the death of the masculine partner (as in The Maltese Falcon) for the development of the plot, just as it depends upon the body of the feminine "other" to carry the story to its conclusion. Female characters appear to be as integral to detective fiction as they are incidental in war stories. As far as I can tell, most detective stories are inscribed on the female body, the "body in the bed," which is either sexualized or slaughtered, or both.
Now I am a voracious reader, and my reading list is pretty eclectic, but I have never been able to develop any kind of affection for detective stories. I have found them a very male headspace, and not a comfortable place for me to hang out. (I realize that there is a large body of detective fiction by women, including the Agatha Christie novels which I read in my adolescence. I don't like that stuff much either, but for a whole set of other reasons I'm not going to go into here.) I consider this a shortcoming on my part, and not a problem with the genre, because I figure I should be able to get my mind around anything. So I thought I'd take another stab at appreciating this literature by using the new books by two of my favorite authors as an entry point. So I went to the bookstore and rooted around and came up with an essentially random, but probably representative selection of detective novels which feature Viet Nam veterans as major characters. In addition to the Durden and Hasford books, I uncovered a whole series by James Lee Burke which features Viet Nam veteran Dave Robicheaux, detective turned PI, and is set in New Orleans and the surrounding territory; and Carsten Stroud's Sniper's Moon, set in New York City, and featuring several Viet Nam veteran characters, most notable among them Detective Frank Keogh, whose skills as a sniper in the war seem to have transferred with little trouble to the streets of the city. I have also included in this discussion Sharyn McCrumb's best-seller, If Ever I Return Pretty Peggy-O, which is interesting both because it is a detective story dealing with the Viet Nam war, and because it is by a woman writer.
I purchased four of the Burke books; I was able to make my way through the first two, and bogged down in the middle of the third. The first of them, The Neon Rain, begins over the body of a young white woman thrown from a hotel room window. It continues over the body of a drowned black woman which Robicheaux fishes out of the bayou. Robicheaux, a Cajun whose distinctive marking consists of a white streak in his black hair, "like a skunk," finds himself the target of Columbian drug runners for reasons which it will take the rest of the book for the reader to uncover, and which, of course, are linked to the bodies of the dead women. The live woman is a blue-eyed blonde Robicheaux meets by accident, while he's engaged in macho PI heroics. On his first date with her, the two of them are almost killed by the Bad Guys, sparking Robicheaux's first Viet Nam-related memory of slaughter, which will become a running theme throughout the book. Robicheaux has a brother, too, whom he refers to as his "father's misplaced seed." The brother, Jimmie, is a guy who walks on the dark side of the law and seems rather ham-handedly to represent the "other side" of Robicheaux. Jimmie is mixed up with the local "mob," who are, of course, Italian, and through his naivete and stupidity, he winds up almost but not quite dead. Robicheaux also has a partner named Cletus, who turns out to be a crook, and whom he sends packing by the end of the novel. The sequels to The Neon Rain--Heaven's Prisoners, Black Cherry Blues, and A Morning for Flamingos--demonstrate that Robicheaux has been given all of these personal connections so that they can be severed, one by one, as devices to further a plot which seems endlessly repetitive: just when things seem to be getting better, they are bound to get worse. Married to the saintly blonde he meets in The Neon Rain, Robicheaux acquires a mysterious child as the result of a fortuitous plane crash, creating an instant nuclear family. The acquisition of the kid, however, signals the imminent demise of the wife, who is murdered in what can only be described as a Phoenix-style assassination in the middle of the night. This is the event which triggers Robicheaux's inevitable fall off the wagon, the climb back onto which is the a corollary to his newly restored faith that things are just as bad as they seem. All of this takes place in picturesque New Orleans and its surroundings like some strange local color narrative, complete with sensuous descriptions of beignets and crawfish tails. By the middle of the third book in the series, I was so bored I didn't care how bad it was for Robicheaux. Burke regularly receives rave reviews from just about everybody, including his peers, who in 1989 awarded him the Edgar for the best crime novel of 1989. What did become clear to me was Burke's insistence that for Robicheaux, Viet Nam and the U.S. are exactly the same. Check out this passage from The Neon Rain
There's no indication that Burke is himself a Viet Nam war vet. Back cover notes say only that he grew up on the Gulf Coast and that he teaches writing and literature at Wichita State. I get the feeling that Robicheaux's vet status was the result of Burke's assumption that he could use readers' stereotypes of veterans to flesh out his character, and to provide an "explanation" for Robicheaux's attitude. (I come to this conclusion based on some real screamers in the text. For instance, Robicheaux hears the men who are coming to kill him and narrates, "...my heart sank with a terrible knowledge that I had experienced only once before, and that was when I had heard the klatch of the mine under my foot in Vietnam" (125). There never was any mention of injury to Robicheaux's legs--much less the traumatic amputation that stepping on such a mine is certain to cause--and so this statement simply sounds silly.)
Carsten Stroud, author of Sniper's Moon, is also not explicitly named as a Viet Nam vet, though one would assume that it would lend an air of authenticity, if he were a vet, to announce it in this context. He has, however, clearly read Michael Herr's Dispatches, since he baldly appropriates one of Herr's centerpieces:
Amazing how this refrain, penned by a journalist, and later incorporated into the filmscript of Full Metal Jacket (script by Michael Herr, based on the Hasford novel, The Short-Timers) has become "an old line from the war." Stroud's novel also begins over the body of a woman, in this case Frank Keogh's mother, Madeleine, who is bizarrely electrocuted when she dives into her swimming pool, naked, at night, as her husband stands by (impotently?) with an erection. Police sniper Keogh is haunted by his mother's death, which turns out, of course, to be linked to the later murder of his lover, Myra, soon after he has sex with her and departs her apartment. The sheer perversity of Stroud's connection between sex and violence is highlighted by both the senior Keogh's seemingly coincidental erection at the moment of his wife's demise and the fact that Myra's murderer is dressed in a rubber body suit which the murderer describes as a "total-body condom" (173) when he violently penetrates/stabs her as she stands naked before him. His remark, "I kill myself. I really do," displaces her as the victim in this scenario. (Cynthia Fuchs says this reminds her of Holden Caulfield's refrain, "It kills me. It really does.") The Good Guys in Sniper's Moon are hardcore combat vets who still kill people for a living. The Bad Guys are all psychiatrists and mental health workers who seem to be trying to convince the vets that they suffer from PTSD (weakness), and need "help." The psychiatrists are homosexuals and fools, who are duped by a psychotic killer who both poses as a Viet Nam combat veteran (he was really a REMF) and as a veteran's counselor. It's hard to imagine a more perfect example of male hysteria.
Since I'm not a regular reader of detective novels, I've no idea if this is an extraordinarily twisted text, or just police-business as usual, but the manner in which Stroud weaves the pop culture mythology of a rehabilitated Viet Nam veteran-hero into his story is truly striking. Stroud's vet is completely recuperated, and not even a bit of a victim. PTSD is dismissed as nonsense, a distraction invented by non-vet Yuppies to take their minds off their own Viet Guilt. In the end, the Real Men unite and pass judgement upon the psychotic who attempted to pass as one of them, murdering him as one might shoot a rabid dog. But even this rather outrageous gesture is rendered essentially uninteresting, since the final sentences of the book focus not on the "necessity" that "good men" commit crimes, but on the absolution of Keogh senior of guilt or complicity in the death of his wife.
I wish I could say that it's only the guys who bore me to tears, but Sharyn McCrumb's If Ever I Return Pretty Peggy-O was simply one of the most insipid volumes I've suffered through in I don't remember how long. Spencer Arrowood is a small town policeman and Peggy Muryan is a famous folksinger (beautiful, rich, "liberated" and antiwar) returning home to settle down for a while in his small town. Spencer's brother Cal was killed in Vietnam in 1966 (twenty years before the story takes place), and Peggy Muryan's ex-boyfriend and ex-singing partner, Travis, was also killed there. The plot revolves around a burgeoning love affair between Peggy and Spencer, and a gradually revealed plot against Peggy carried out by some mysterious person who may or may not be Travis returned from the dead. "Letters home" from Travis punctuate the text, and his descriptions of the atrocities he committed in Viet Nam are paralleled by similar attacks on Peggy. Certainly the most attractive character in the novel is the dead Travis, and McCrumb's prose is liveliest when she is penning his letters. A subplot involves police officer and Viet Nam vet Joe LeDonne's relationship with feral vet Roger Gabriel, who turns out not to be the killer--male bonding seems to be the point here--and secretary Martha's finally successful attempt to snag the elusive LeDonne for her own. Meanwhile, it seems the whole town is preparing for the twentieth reunion of the high school class to which all the major characters seemingly belonged. The villain turns out to be a psychotic high school student who accidentally found Travis' letters and decided to act out his fantasies about the war. The kid breaks into Peggy's house to rape and then murder her, but Peggy has a .45 and "captures" the kid. Spencer arrives to rescue her just in time to see Peggy blow the kid away in cold blood:
In a weird reversal, the peacenik folksinger becomes the grunt executing prisoners, while Spencer looks on in horror--like the appalled American public. But the message is very confused, because, as Peggy notes, she won't be prosecuted because she's a woman. However, she's obviously able to kill because she's a feminist. And of course there's now no hope of any romantic relationship between Peggy and Spencer. Spencer winds up alone with LeDonne, confessing that his brother Cal had committed atrocities in Viet Nam and had, in fact, mailed home a severed ear in his last letter. But never fear, healing waits around the corner as LeDonne and Spencer set off together to visit the Viet Nam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.
My strongest reaction to these books was impatience. "So what?" I kept thinking. Despite the twists and turns of plot, it seemed like nothing happened. I can understand Durden's and Hasford's attraction to the genre--its static nature underlines the state of being "frozen" in the traumatic moment. What I can't understand is why people find these stories interesting reading. The repetitive masculine discovery of "self" over the dead bodies of female characters left me profoundly unmoved, and, in fact, became so predictable that I simply assumed that every female who showed up was a soon-to-be-body, either in this book, or its sequel. The killers were invariably "psychotics" who "passed" for normal until their deep flaws were uncovered by the persistence and intelligence of the detective. The detectives were invariably deeply ambivalent men who were never going to find peace. Such formulae indicate that these books are fulfilling a fantasy, like romances, perhaps. But unlike romances they are not hopeful. Rather, they are rationalizations for the refusal to change, arguments for stasis. When I finished the last one, all I could think of were Walter Cronkite's words: "Things are more like they are now than they ever have been before."