Deaton’s (The Death of Maria Chavarria, 2012) Vietnam memoir offers medical narratives amid the complexities of war.
In 1967, Deaton was at the end of his rope. He had a career and a family, but also an overpowering addiction to barbiturates. In light of his increasingly erratic impulses and worried about the destruction his downward spiral could wreak on the ones he loved, Deaton volunteered for the Vietnam War. The war would either cure or kill him, but he was so focused on the end results that he didn’t fully comprehend what was ahead. Deaton’s thoughts and perceptions were scattered by both pills and the action of the world around him, and while the narration supports this feeling, the style can be awkward for readers. Meaning gets muddled in shifts to the present tense and in overly verbose descriptions: “The building itself was smug. It was as smug as a jukebox on a Saturday night, as smug as an organ-grinder with twin monkeys, as smug as the villain in every plot of gothic dimensions.” Once Deaton arrives in Vietnam, the style seems more apt. Quitting his drug habit wasn’t the immediate, cold turkey affair he’d imagined, and his moods and heavy hangovers were just as much a problem as they were at home. He was still constantly tempted, both by substances and the women around him, despite his marriage vows. At the same time, he butted heads with other doctors and soldiers, his authority issues with matters of medical treatment creating conflict with the military rank and file. While many of his early cases make for mundane reading, the realities of war sweep in, threatening Deaton’s life more than once. Danger turns real, interpersonal conflict becomes collegial respect, and his addiction seems certain to be discovered. As patients’ stories fill up the sometimes-gruesome narrative, it’s seldom clear how Deaton’s tour of duty will turn out. Change, like war, was an inevitability.
A complex, potentially alienating writing style clouds this unique war memoir.