In his first novel, Clausen tells the gripping story of psychological traumas that lead a soldier to volunteer for the dirtiest work in Vietnam.
To create the fully realized Billy Bascom, Clausen masterfully weaves together two primary narratives, one a gruesome picture of war and the other an equally gruesome picture of a painful childhood. Billy’s job in Vietnam calls for him to dive headfirst into the dark, snake-infested tunnels that the Vietcong use to execute sneak attacks on unsuspecting U.S. soldiers. It takes a touch of insanity to volunteer for such a task, so, as a way of explaining what leads Billy underground, Clausen leaps between passages that describe Billy’s exploration of the enemy tunnels and descriptions of his childhood. Growing up in Los Angeles, Billy was scrawny and quiet. He was mercilessly bullied by Nick and his gang as well as by his exhausted single mother. Over the course of Billy’s childhood, Nick nearly suffocates him in a bag, locks him in a refrigerator and eventually begins handing him off to a child molester in exchange for cigarettes and magazines. The series of scarring experiences, most perpetrated by Nick, drove Billy to volunteer for combat and venture to Vietnam to fight off the communists, whom he believes to be the ultimate bullies. This narrative is eventually shattered, however, when Billy meets a Berkeley-educated Vietnamese woman while doing covert work in the tunnels. The woman, whom Billy refers to as the Black Butterfly Woman, provides Billy with an alternative perspective of war. She and Billy fall in love but are torn apart by violence. Billy then returns home and is finally forced to confront the issues that sent him to Vietnam in the first place. In addition to the remarkable depth of character, the novel’s brisk pace makes for an engaging read.
Deftly written, this entertaining novel is both expansive and insightful.