Middling memoir of the bad old days of booze, acid and shrapnel.
Call me Snakebrain. So poet Anderson (Creative Writing/Univ. of Connecticut Greater Hartford) dubs the “second self that lies dormant until he’s needed” that somehow hitched a ride on his psyche while serving in Vietnam. He arrived there in 1967 and served as a Marine medic in combat “against the tough and committed Communist Vietcong and NVA.” Before the war, he writes, he did all the usual things of the early ’60s—pondering inequality and injustice, signing up for college, flunking ROTC, hanging out with young radicals in coffeehouses and listening to folk singers. During the war, he dodged mortar shells and bullets, smoked dope and listened to Hendrix—the stuff, in other words, of countless memoirs and nearly every Vietnam movie ever filmed. Anderson writes competently if formulaically—“I don’t know anything either, apart from the masks I use to cover my fear”—but there’s not a surprising moment at any turn in the narrative. Even the closing, when he returns with other writer veterans to workshop with the erstwhile enemy, is predictable down to the last note (“So much of my life is a blur. The war years are veiled in fear and confusion”). The author’s rigorously honest account of his postwar return to college life and the development of various addictions as manifestations of trauma—“Pot loosens the flak jacket and I float where I don’t want to”—will be of use to students of psychology, counselors and other mental-health professionals. Those readers have their hands full treating veterans of latter-day conflicts, but Snakebrain makes for an oddly fascinating subject.
Most readers will want to turn to more deeply felt books about the era, including Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (1977), Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam (1994) and Peter Coyote’s Sleeping Where I Fall (1998).