An unusual Vietnam-era novel that features a bicycle race along with much soul-searching.
In 1970, Brendan Leary, the hero and narrator of Harkin’s debut novel, has just gotten out of college and decides to enlist in the U.S. Air Force before he’s drafted into the Army. A photographer with some experience under his belt, he hopes to eventually go to the famous University of Southern California film school, and maybe the GI Bill will help. He thinks that his Vietnam experience will be a cushy billet, editing film behind the front lines in an air-conditioned hut. He’s wrong, of course; first of all, he’s not in Vietnam but Thailand (in an illegal military operation), and he soon finds himself filming the action firsthand, riding an AC-130 gunship as it destroys Viet Cong caravans on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The VC return the favor with fierce anti-aircraft fire. To say that Brendan is terrified every time he goes up would be understatement. The airmen are either “hippies” or “lifers”; Brendan and friends are, of course, laid-back hippies (think M*A*S*H). There are lots of drugs—anyone who only smokes marijuana is practically a choirboy—and a club scene in which Brendan, a drummer, bangs away after hours. He falls half in love with the beautiful Tukada, who works at the club—even though he has another girlfriend stateside—and spends the rest of his hitch desperately trying to save her from her own heroin habit. This is all capped with an exhilarating bicycle race among the soldiers which ends very badly, indeed.
Author Harkin has had a successful career as a Hollywood cameraman, and his idea of mixing war and photography in this novel is clever. He shows how it’s the photographer’s job to make the war look good while also providing some distance. It’s ironic that both guns and cameras “shoot” people, and the pictures help to make the carnage exciting, almost attractive; the Viet Cong and their supply trucks become like simple figures in a video game. Harkin also shows how Brendan realizes, over time, that the Americans are inflicting as much damage on the Thai people as on the avowed enemy, vulgarizing a beautiful culture and trashing the economy; bar girls and masseuses make more money than local professionals, and everything is sold cheap. In a final scene, readers discover that Thai Army Sgt. Prasert, a supposed friend, has been nursing a raging hatred for Americans all along, and readers will find it hard to blame him. But in a particularly tear-jerking scene, Brendan, his friend Tom, and Tukada perform their own very loopy three-way wedding. In the end, the tone of the book seems Shakespearian, as everybody in the narrative ends up losing. And Harkin’s prose is lyrical at times: “With a hundred incarnations of Death as their companion, ground pounders never had a chance to be lonely, especially in the hot and spicy nighttime when they were caressed by their desperate mistress, Fear.”
An excellent, thoughtful book about the Vietnam War.