An American soldier in Vietnam struggles to reconcile himself to the horrors of combat in this debut novel.
Theo Garrett simply isn’t prepared for Vietnam, such an extraordinary contrast to the Vermont summers of his youth. After the draftee arrives in the war-torn country, he’s handed an M-16, a weapon with which he’s never trained; he discovers that his pants don’t fit; and he’s all but immediately assigned to guard duty. Theo is a combat engineer who specializes in water purification systems but his technical expertise doesn’t spare him from the grim reality of war—the violence and danger are ubiquitous. He’s nearly killed by sniper fire but seems to take no solace in his survival; nor can he find lasting comfort in religion. McGinnis movingly portrays Theo’s mounting emotional trauma. In one heartbreaking scene, his superior officer decides not to risk lives by attempting to rescue fellow soldiers shot down in a helicopter: “I felt nausea build inside my stomach as the convoy pulled out. I felt relieved for not having to go into the valley to fight, but I knew the men in the Chinook would die or be taken prisoner. I felt safe and cowardly.” Theo reacts to his terrifying environment by becoming something of a screw-up—he narrowly averts being sent to military prison, first for shooting up a hotel, and then for going AWOL. The author concludes the book with a personal reflection on his own Vietnam experiences, observing “there is nothing glamorous about war.” McGinnis writes poetically melancholic prose, and artfully constructs a dark atmosphere of foreboding and despair. The only barrier to readers’ full immersion is the inscrutability of the protagonist—one doesn’t have enough of a sense of Theo’s character prior to the war to fully appreciate his withering under it. In fact, readers will develop a stronger connection to the author, who is far more forthcoming about himself than the character he conjures. Still, this is a dramatically haunting book and an emotionally searching peek at the wages of war.
A grimly beautiful depiction of the ugliness of war.