Vietnam Veterans of America
Books in Review, July/August 2019
Jesse Treviño: A Remarkable Artist and Vietnam War Veteran
It’s difficult to envision a more unlikely or uplifting Vietnam War story than that of artist Jesse Treviño before, during, and especially after his Vietnam War tour of duty. It’s been told before, including in this magazine. But the journalist Anthony Head adds many new details in Spirit: The Life and Art of Jesse Treviņo (Texas A&M University Press, 242 pp., $40), a worthy, heavily illustrated, admiring biography.
Treviño was born in Mexico in 1946, grew up in San Antonio, and began painting at a young age. While in high school he won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Art Students League in New York City. That ended in July of 1966 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Treviño could have returned to Mexico to avoid serving, but chose not to, took the oath, and went through Basic Training and Infantry AIT at Fort Polk and Fort Riley.
Treviño became part of the newly reformed 9th Infantry Division at Riley. In November of 1966 he and other members of the 9th’s 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment boarded trains in Kansas on a three-day journey to California, followed by a three-week merchant ship voyage across the Pacific. After landing in Vung Tau, Treviño soon found himself carrying a rifle in the Mekong Delta.
During breaks between humping the boonies, the young artist found time to paint and draw, making art with whatever materials he could scrounge up. Treviño presented his drawings to his buddies, many of whom sent them home with their letters.
On February 13, 1967, his third month in country, as Treviño and two other infantrymen were sprinting under VC sniper fire to a helicopter, he “felt a pair of crushing explosions nearby, and then a third thundering blast suddenly lifted him from the ground and flung him about fifty feet into a rice paddy,” as Anthony Head puts it in the book.
When he came to, Treviño had nearly bled to death half submerged in the rice paddy. A medic, Joe Kuhn, “staunched the gushing of blood from behind his right knee with a tourniquet, injected him with morphine, and helped carry his dying body on a litter to a waiting helicopter.”
He underwent sixteen hours of surgery in a field hospital, then more operations in an Army hospital in Japan. Treviño came home weighing ninety pounds with a cast on his body from the waist down. He spent more than a year going through more surgeries before he left Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston.
Surgeons had healed his collapsed lung and his shattered right leg, as well as the shrapnel wounds in his chest, back, and right arm. But they couldn’t save Jesse Treviño’s right hand—his painting hand. He got out of the Army in July of 1968, and it took two more years to recover from his wounds. Then, in 1970, at the urging of his mother Delores, he enrolled in a drawing class at San Antonio College and almost miraculously learned to draw with his left hand.
Treviño began painting again, and by the mid-1970s was producing world-class work, mainly large-scale, realistic portraits of the people and places of the predominantly Mexican-American West Side San Antonio neighborhood where he grew up. Today, Jesse Treviño is an internationally celebrated painter who was honored by two presidents (Reagan and Clinton) at the White House. His work is part of the collections of Prince Charles of England and many corporations, as well as in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art (See “The Smithsonian’s Big Vietnam War Exhibit,”)
In Spirit Head does a fine job detailing Jesse Treviño’s personal and artistic lives. The author did a great deal of research and interviewed his subject over a period of several years. Naturally and correctly, Head focuses on the artist’s creative work and writes extensively about many of his paintings and exhibitions. He does not mention that Treviño received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award at the 1995 National Convention in Houston, but that’s a small oversight. He also incorrectly refers to his subject’s Army rank as “Pvt. Spec. 3” and later as “Pvt. Spec. 4,” and calls the medic who saved him a “corpsman.”
Those minor issues aside, this large-format book, which contains many high-quality images of the artist’s work, is a deeply researched, well-presented tribute to a remarkable American artist and a remarkable Vietnam War veteran.
Ocean Vuong’s creatively told new book. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, 256 pp., $26), is unlike any other Vietnam War-heavy novel I’ve ever read.
First, there’s the odd, cryptic title. I had only the faintest clue what it meant until Vuong told all in a long paragraph near the end of this autobiographical, coming-of-age tale. Reflecting on the hard life of a Vietnamese immigrant boy, his mother, and grandmother on the tough streets of inner-city Hartford, Connecticut, in the early nineties, the author’s alter ego Little Dog ruminates about beauty and “how some things are haunted because we have made them beautiful.”
He goes on to say: “If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly.” And: “To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”
Which brings up a second unique feature of this at times brilliant—if sometimes disturbing—story. Vuong tells the tale using an often bitter, melancholy tone to evoke the many physically and emotionally painful aspects of his young life, including his mother’s mental illness and the stark poverty and vicious racism in which he grew up. And as his words indicate, Little Dog is an introspective, sensitive, poetic boy (and young man) who constantly ruminates on beauty and nature (Monarch butterflies are a minor theme), as well as life’s many slings and arrows.
The story, moreover, is told in the form of a letter from Little Dog to his deceased mother—who didn’t read or speak English. It’s sprinkled with poetic passages, much word play, and canny and clever observations about American and Vietnamese culture told through flashbacks, often within the same paragraph. That’s how the thirty-year-old Vuong—whose 2016 poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds won several awards—gradually paints the bigger picture of his family, starting with the Vietnam War in which his grandmother was impregnated by an American G.I.
Some of the flashbacks take place in Vietnam during the American war. There’s a short section on Tiger Woods and his father, Earl, a Green Beret in Vietnam. A war veteran named Paul, who may be Little Dog’s grandfather, appears several times. In one section Little Dog mentions Paul’s cancer, “something he believed was brought on by his contact with Agent Orange during the war.” In another, he refers to a young Vietnamese girl, a friend of his grandmother’s during the war, “who was erased by an air strike three weeks before the war ended.”
Then there’s the main difference between this book and every other novel or short story I’ve read that deals with the Vietnam War: The main theme is Little Dog’s homosexuality and his intense teen-aged relationship with a boy named Trevor. In the many passages describing their good and bad times together Vuong/Little Dog graphically depicts their sexual relations.
In more than one way On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous adds a new voice to the Vietnam War/Vietnamese Diaspora literary canon. That’s a good thing.
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