Absurdity and drama go hand in hand in Baysden’s witty, loopy memoir of his time as a Navy adviser during the Vietnam War.
This slim volume tells of the shenanigans Baysden and several of his colleagues got up to while he was serving as a U.S. Navy lieutenant. Over the course of a year starting in 1968, Baysden was a senior adviser to the Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta, based in and around Rach Gia (usually mispronounced as “rock jaw,” ergo the book’s title). For various reasons, Baysden’s posting was given a fair amount of resources and very little “adult supervision,” as Baysden puts it. On top of that, the advisers, including the author, were only on duty for five days out of every 10, allowing the misbehavior to reach impressive levels. Long-running poker games, frequent trips to every brothel (aka “ladies clubs”) within traveling distance, gambling on which traps would catch giant rats and in which order: these are only some of the events Baysden describes with good humor and plentiful wit. That’s not to say the horrors of war didn’t occasionally intrude, but those horrors—which Baysden describes with respect and sensitivity, even in cases of wild coincidence or absurdity—were not commonplace in his experience, a fact for which Baysden is profoundly and profusely grateful. Literature about the Vietnam conflict is replete with grim, powerful stories of hardship and loss, so Baysden’s memoir is immediately striking for the light, joyful attitude in its pages, without ignoring the realities on the ground. If there is a downside to the stories here, it’s that they are rather disjointed, presented seemingly in the order the author remembered them, with characters mentioned before they’re introduced and given context. Baysden is well-aware of this, however, outrightly stating it as an issue within the first few pages, so readers are at least forewarned. Still, fans of often hilarious literature that explores the ridiculous nature of war—including Catch-22, which Baysden explicitly references—will feel right at home.
Warm, witty recollections well-aware of their absurdity.