Debut assortment of Vietnam pieces, from a nurse who was there, that wants to be a true story collection, but the madcap anecdotes flush with familiar tropes fail to either stand alone or cohere.
A cast of hospital personnel stumbles through the alternate craziness and boredom of life just behind the front lines, all the while struggling to calculate the meaning of the war. In “Butch,” a young Specialist tries to adopt an even younger Vietnamese boy to give himself a clear wartime identity. In “Psychic Hand,” a short-timer nurse palm-reads for a Vietnamese girl whose lifeline has a dot at the end: they’re both about to check out, so to speak. Most often, it’s O’Neill herself who gets in the way of these pieces. In “One Positive Thing,” a pregnant nurse contemplating abortion participates in surgery on another pregnant woman who’s been shot—the scene has the potential to rivet, but the payoff for the character is simply sentimental, where O’Neill could naturally have been colder and more damaged. In “Monkey on Our Backs,” a nurse puts out a contract on a small primate that almost stands for all that is ancient and sacred about Vietnam (the actual Vietnamese characters are little more than cliché furniture), and while the story threatens to become allegory, O’Neill cuts it off before it comes to mean anything. There are nice moments—an M-16 as heavy as a corpse, a nurse who finds a blown-up snapshot of herself hung on a wall as a pinup, the intensity of a moment when an anesthetist decides not to medicate a patient undergoing surgery—but they are random and infrequent. The high-jinks that follow the spiking of a barbecue’s steak sauce in “Drugs” perhaps comes closest to capturing the absurdity of war, but the horror of it is almost absent here, and many of these stories may just as well have come from day camp.
M*A*S*H, with lots more sex and cursing.