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In a Time of Chaos

by J.B. Randers

Pub Date: Sept. 17th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-68201-099-0
Publisher: Polaris Publications

A debut memoir about a soldier’s stint in the U.S. Air Force from 1965 to ’69.

Randers, a Vietnam veteran from Minnesota, takes a melancholic tack while recounting the time he spent stateside at the end of the tumultuous ’60s—a tone that recalls Tim O’Brien’s work in the 1990 short story collection The Things They Carried. Randers never encountered the carnage of combat (“I was lucky, no more can be said”), but death still seemed just around the corner throughout his enlistment. The pages are filled with adventures that emerged from this existential pressure, generally calling to mind accounts by his mentioned literary forebears—John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and, especially, Jack Kerouac. However, Randers’ prose, with some exceptions, has fewer distinguishing lyrical or rhythmic features than those authors’; when it drags, it feels as if one is reading a hastily composed diary. Its plain style is sometimes clear and fresh, though, with occasional moments of crystalline retrospection: “We were trapped in a changing world between our civilian belief and our military commitment, and that nasty little war in Southeast Asia.” Overall, the book offers an account of military work and life but also focuses on a group of young people and the art they consumed, the drugs they took, the love they made, the cars they owned, the travel they managed, the music they heard, the books they read, the theater they witnessed, and the food they ate—as in a delightfully sensual description of a meal hunted, cooked, and enjoyed in the rugged Alaskan backcountry: “…and voilá! Fresh duck and vegetables perfectly done. It was scrumptious, especially in that pristine wilderness, and how entrancing that aroma was, freshly cooked duck co-mingled with the sweet smell of the tundra by the rushing, clear, cold waters of the Yukon River.” Included at the conclusion of each section is a “Songs of the times” list followed by an epigraph postscript—an intriguing structural quirk.  

An often valuable primary account of the Vietnam War from a self-described “attitude-challenged” author.