Personal encounters with Vietnam, past and present, in a web of prickly memory.
When editor and novelist Karlin (The Wished for Country, 2002, etc.) is hired to work on the film Song of the Stork, his 1966–67 tour in Vietnam begins to unreel again in his mind, like a movie: “It had been like that even then, even as it was happening, and those stories seeped back in again.” The writing here is trancelike, still and thoughtful, groping toward memory and meaning. The time span goes from 1966 to 2004, from Karlin’s gunner’s position on a helicopter to his later role as a screenwriter aware of the moral complexities of his current work and of that of the soldiers, Vietnamese and American, back then. The writer is edgy, but he has returned to Vietnam many times before and is mindful that he must be patient if he wants to hear the stories of the Vietnamese he’s working with on the film, a number of whom were on the receiving end of his fire, as he was of theirs. Questions of conduct loom large, both for the truthfulness of the movie and for Karlin’s own curiosity about how college-age students today, like those working on Song, would have behaved under the circumstances then. He remembers the effort it took to “move at all in the eardrum-cracking din of a fire fight, as projectiles he has seen split and mutilate the flesh of his companions scribble the air around him,” or the courage that was needed to resist the horror of My Lai, as one helicopter crew did, to its peril. The disorientation of those times is still there as Karlin brings us back to 2004. The disgust and heartsickness, the lies, unworthiness, frustration, and rage of a war—these are things he’ll never shake.
Karlin works on a small scale, bringing all the senses into play as he describes acts both of turpitude and decency in this memoir of a country’s consciousness.