McCormick’s debut novella unflinchingly portrays the experiences of a young Marine in the Vietnam War.
Sean McBride is a patriotic high school student from an Ohio farm family. When a Marine recruiter visits Sean’s high school, he doesn’t hesitate to enlist. After training at Parris Island, he is shipped off to Vietnam, where he hardens from raw recruit into a warrior called Mac. He first serves under a sadistic squad leader named Zang before rising to the position of squad leader himself. Despite this leadership role, there’s nothing Sean can do to protect his men from death, which is often inflicted by snipers and bombs at unexpected moments. He becomes so inured to this violence that he doesn’t even care when a sniper almost kills him while he crosses a street. McCormick doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence Sean witnesses and participates in. Often, death follows death in an almost rote fashion: “Bleachman’s head exploded. A machine-gun bullet ripped through the top of his skull, splattering pieces of bone, brain tissue, and blood on Mac’s face and flak jacket….He was about to tell Jimmy that Bleachman was dead when he saw Jimmy take a bullet in the forehead. Jimmy was dead.” When Sean returns home, damaged by his experiences, he discovers that no one other than his fellow veterans has any understanding of, let alone compassion for, what he has gone through. McCormick—himself a veteran—crafts a lean, direct narrative. There’s scant discussion of the political context and very little development of relationships and characters. Readers should look elsewhere if they want a complex historical understanding of the war or literary engagement with its brutality. If, however, they want a raw, unfiltered glimpse into the experiences of a Vietnam veteran, this is it.
A brief, brutal, and honest account of what war can do to a young man.