Smith’s meticulous debut novel captures the daily routines of a U.S. Marine base during the Vietnam War.
Phillip “Duke” Dukesheirer, working for a racehorse trainer at Suffolk Downs, is accused of doping one of the horses. He has two choices—face expulsion from the world of horse racing or join the Marines. Too young to consider blemishing his racing career, he soon finds himself on his way to Vietnam. At Camp Horn, the headquarters of the III Marine Amphibious Force in Da Nang, he works at the Photographic Imagery Interpretation Center analyzing aerial reconnaissance photographs. Daily, he stares down a stereoscope looking for potential North Vietnamese Army rocket sites—often until the veins in his eyeballs “begin to look like a contour map of Mount Suribachi.” He is surrounded by a colorful cast of Marine personnel, from the surly cigar-chewing Sgt. Fuller to the mischievous Cpl. Howie Barlow, who dreams of stealing a stash of air hostesses’ silk panties amassed by the air controllers at the air base. The novel examines the Vietnam War from the point of view of those not directly involved in frontline firefights—although Duke and his buddies do not escape close-quarters combat. In many respects, Smith highlights the sheer mundanity of war as Duke scours photograph after photograph of dense jungle. The emphasis is on the men themselves and their relationships with one another as well as with the locals. Smith’s prose is tight and descriptive: “Minute curlicues of charred plastic from the melted negatives mixed with the thick smoke and billowed upwards until the curlicues began to cool and parachute to the ground in limitless numbers.”
A sharply written war novel that powerfully evokes the camaraderie and conflict of a Marine headquarters during wartime; a must for aficionados of the genre.