CASUALTY by Corinne Browne


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In childhood, Browne felt ""really American. . . tall and strong and good."" Years later, she identifies with others at a loss: ""we cross and recross the country looking for answers, examining our compatriots, hoping that bizarre events and people will tell us why we're so fucked up when we started off so fine."" Small children in tow, Browne centers her search in northern New Mexico, where a memorial chapel has been built by Dr. Victor Westphall for his son David, killed in Vietnam in 1968. The stark chapel, wired for sound and floodlights, hung with photographs of 13 dead men, could be ""a hieroglyph of the times."" And Browne too will be something of a casualty, never quite penetrating to the center of two elusive Vietnam veterans: one living, one dead. The survivor is Matt Hill--with whom she talks of his blasted life and David Westphall's lost one. She ponders the curious ""maleness"" of soldiering and the complex female response. Then Matt, inexplicably hurting her, disappears. Reconstructing the peripheral reality of David's life, she speaks with his father, Victor--a product of poverty and hardship who raised the ""ideal son"" in David: tough, strong, handsome, and compelled to please his father. She interviews his withdrawn mother, who guards their mobile home with a gun as if it were David's tomb. From David's brother Doug, who helped his father build the chapel, she learns that he never achieved what he wanted most: ""revenge"" on America's maggoty leadership. And the architect who ran up plans for the chapel in 15 minutes of a rainy day, muses that it ""would make an interesting ruin. . . . We have short memories. 50,000 men gave their lives and we have nothing to say."" Browne stares at documents, family photos, David's letters home, and official correspondence--invitations to Viet families to commemorate their lost men and a plea for government support. Eventually the floodlights have to be turned off for lack of money; visitors dwindle; and at the close Browne watches a popsicle wrapper flutter from one idling car in the parking lot. A jet stream rises and the sun sets as the car drives away. Rather overwrought, but often affecting.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1981
Publisher: Norton