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BOOKS IN REVIEW, May/June 2012

Good-Hearted Veteran Cast Populates The Living Wills

REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON

Two-author novels are rare. The main reason: Writing fiction is such an intimate, personal business that it’s extremely difficult for two people to come up with one literary vision, not to mention implement it. So you have to give credit to Rick Kaempfer and Brendan Sullivan, the two authors of The Living Wills (Eckhartz Press, 336 pp., $19.95, paper), a fast-reading novel set in Chicago in 2005, for coming up with a creditable work of fiction. Kaempfer is a Chicago writer and Sullivan is an improv artist in the City of Big Shoulders.

How did the two men put the book together? “We improvised the story lines together using [Sullivan’s] techniques,” Kaempfer explained, “before sitting down to plot it out and write the chapters using my techniques. Both of us wrote equal parts of the book—it’s a completely collaborative process.” The authors “didn’t set out to write a Vietnam book,” Kaempfer said, “but when we improvised, it simply emerged.”

How did the collaboration turn out? Not badly. The dialogue-heavy story hums along rapidly. It’s a multi-character affair, centering on veteran Henry Stankiewicz and his late-in-life effort to make amends with his upwardly mobile lawyer son. It’s not an easy task, as young Peter is extremely bitter after having suffered from an absent father for most of his childhood while the elder Stankiewicz struggled with postwar emotional and physical issues.

Several interwoven subplots include one involving a depressed middle-aged corporate type and another centering on a group of Henry’s bowling buddies. There’s also Peter’s struggles with his work situation in a big law firm and his relationship with his girlfriend, who happens to be a lawyer at his firm. The main plot deals with something that happened to Henry in Vietnam and the continuing fallout from that traumatic event in his life and in the lives of a group of his war buddies.

Henry and the other Vietnam veteran characters in the book are good-hearted men who have (to one degree or another) overcome their war-related emotional and physical problems. Henry holds down a decent blue-collar job, is happily married to a good woman, and has a positive mental outlook. One of his buddies still struggles with alcohol; another is a well-adjusted family man. In other words, the authors have come up with a cast of realistic, non-sensationalized Vietnam veterans living out their lives in the early 21st century—no Nam vet stereotypes here.

The authors do commit some first-novel missteps. They tend to label emotions rather than invoking them in their characters. Some of the characters are too broadly sketched and there are too many far-out coincidences that stretch credulity. That said, The Living Wills is a more-than-decent novel filled with sympathetically drawn Vietnam veteran characters. That in itself is worth the price of admission.

PATTONS

Benjamin Patton’s father was George S. Patton IV; his grandfather was George S. Patton, Jr. Yes, that George S. Patton—the iconic, blood-and-guts World War I and World War II tank-commanding general. George S. Patton IV followed in his father’s footsteps: He served three tours in Vietnam, including one commanding the 11th Armored Cavalry, the Blackhorse Regiment, in 1968-69. Ben Patton, 46, never knew his grandfather, who died in 1945. He was a young boy when his father made his military name for himself in the Vietnam War.

Ben Patton did not join the military; he went into television and has made his career in documentary filmmaking. His book, Growing Up Patton: Reflections on Heroes, History, and Family Wisdom (Berkeley Caliber, 368 pp., $26.95), is a family memoir, a paean to his father and grandfather, as well as to thirteen other people the author greatly admires. These military men and civilians, he says, are “remarkable people who were closely connected with my father—and who, by extension, loom large in my personal pantheon of personal heroes.”

The book looks at the complicated relationship between the two Patton generals. Among other things, Ben Patton includes excerpts from previously unpublished letters between his father and grandfather written during World War II. The excerpts focus on “the advice on leadership, friendship, and life in general that my grandfather, a wonderful character and hero, handed down to my father, another wonderful character and my hero,” the youngest Patton writes. His father was a West Point cadet struggling with academics at the time.

The book then shifts gears as the author looks at his thirteen military and civilian heroes.

That group includes Gen. Creighton Abrams, the MACV Commander and Army Chief of Staff who had served under Patton at the Battle of the Bulge; Manfred Rommel, the son of the legendary German Gen. Erwin Rommel, whom the younger George Patton befriended in postwar Germany; and Gen. Julius Becton, who actually was a rival of George S. Patton IV. The third section looks at Ben Patton’s disabled brother, also named George S. Patton, Jr., and Charley Watkins, his father’s Blackhorse Regiment Huey pilot.

The book is written in breezy prose with much reconstructed dialogue.

SONCHAI JITPLEECHEEP

Sonchai Jitpleecheep is my favorite half-Thai, half-American fictional Royal Thai police detective. Let me amend that. Jitpleecheep—whose father was an American GI in the Vietnam War who had a fruitful liaison with a Thai woman in Bangkok—is one of my favorite fictional detectives, period. Sonchai J. is a wise, wise-cracking, world-weary officer of the law who solves the most heinous crimes in his hometown, overcoming mountainous physical and psychic obstacles along the way. He is the creation of British novelist John Burdett and has starred in five novels, including the newest, Vulture Peak (Knopf, 285 pp., $25.95).

Burdett uses the same blueprint for his belabored hero in the new book as he did in the previous four, including the memorable Bangkok 8 (2006). In this go-round our young hero is in emotional turmoil (due to a family tragedy and difficult issues with his gorgeous wife). His insane boss gives him a difficult assignment involving a gristly triple murder. Sonchai investigates and encounters sociopaths and other evil-doers. More murder and mayhem ensue.

Along the way, Sonchai provides an illuminating commentary on Thai culture and society and Thai Buddhism, with a heavy emphasis on the psycho-socio aspects of the western-fueled sex trade in his hometown. This book’s main plot has to do with widespread, illegal international trade in human body parts. It features a pair of Chinese women whose lifestyles would make your average cable TV reality star blush. The tale is told in rapid-fire prose that wings its way through crazy plot twists to an ultraviolent denouement.

There’s even a Vietnam War-influenced flashback. In an opium-fed dream, Sonchai conjures up a vision of his long-absent father: “Now my long-lost father appears as a young GI, his face blackened for battle. He puts a hand on my shoulder and says, Sorry; I say, Don’t worry about it. The source of pain is blocked; isn’t that what one was looking for all along?”

SEE ALSO: Arts of War on the Web | Books in Brief


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