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Books in Review, September/October 2020 -   -  

Bobbie Ann Mason Returns to the Vietnam War Home Front in ‘Dear Ann’

Mayday 1971The Vietnam War is a main character in Bobbie Ann Mason’s richly imagined and moving new novel, Dear Ann (Harper, 352 pp., $27.99). The war constantly lurks in the psyches of the novel’s main characters, a gaggle of disparate Stanford University graduate students during the war years of 1965-68. The men constantly ponder whether or not they will get sucked up in the draft; the women angst over whether the men they care about will get drafted; they all bemoan American involvement in the war.

Dear Ann is told in the present day by the protagonist, Ann Workman, who grew up on a farm in Kentucky and is imagining how her life would have turned out had she gone to grad school at Stanford instead of Harpur College in upstate New York. As Ann ponders what might have been—which makes up the bulk of the novel—she sees herself struggling socially, academically, and financially at Stanford.

She can’t afford a car, lives in a cheap, cruddy apartment, and works nights typing other students’ term papers for spending money. She’s intimidated by her professors and fellow students (all of them males) who look down on her country accent and unstylish clothes. Plus, just about every time she opens her mouth in class, she is met with snooty put-downs. Ann yearns for a meaningful male relationship, but faces continual disappointment. She has no significant other while everyone else around her seemingly is pairing off. On top of that, Ann came to Northern California with barely an inkling of the emerging counterculture—including the antiwar movement—that permeated campus life.

She spends many an hour pondering her depressing predicament, but her life changes radically when she meets Jimmy. A long-haired fellow creative writing grad student, he is a son of the upper class from Chicago who is rebelling against his conservative parents and their vapid, high-society lifestyle. Ann and Jimmy become a couple and times certainly begin a-changin’ for her. Think drugs, sex, and rock and roll—and Indian food.

As the title indicates, Mason scatters lots of imagined letters to Ann throughout the narrative from three important people in her life: her down-to-earth mother back home in Kentucky; a former professor who has seen the countercultural light and encourages her to open her mind to new things, and, later, Jimmy. One day he abruptly takes off for Chicago. Creative writing major that he is, Jimmy writes to Ann regularly.

In her sterling 1985 novel, In Country, Bobbie Ann Mason dealt with the postwar emotional legacy of the war on a veteran’s family in small-town Kentucky. In 1989, she received the VVA President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. In Dear Ann, Mason once again spins her story around home-front Vietnam War issues. She thoroughly and accurately conveys the spell that the war—and the threat of the draft—held over an entire generation.

The discussions and arguments the students in Dear Ann have over the war and the draft could have come from the mouths of hundreds of thousands of real-life baby boomer high school, college, and graduate students in the mid and late sixties. One of the characters winds up serving in the Army in Vietnam. Mason does a fine job setting the scene in Qui Nhon where he works a rear-echelon job, and in getting inside his head as he puts in his tour of duty during the height of the war. Full disclosure: Bobbie Ann Mason asked me—and another VVA member, Gordon Williams—to help her with the novel’s in-country Vietnam War details.

This is a fine-tuned novel that spins out Ann’s imagined story and what actually did happen to her in the sixties and thereafter in swift-moving prose studded with large helpings of dialogue.

Both stories are often melancholy. But it’s all brilliantly observed—and the would-be Stanford years contain a top-flight literary look at the impact of the Vietnam War on men and women of our generation on the home front.


If you’re intrigued by the two-word title of Phuc Tran’s new memoir—or, better yet, impressed by its clever turn of phrase—I can all but guarantee you will love Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In (Flatiron Books, 306 pp., $27.99). This is a creative, insightful, and at times brutally frank memoir of growing up in small-town America in the seventies and eighties. Growing up, that is, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, from the point of view of a boy born in Saigon in 1973 who escaped with eleven other family members on one of the last helicopters that lifted off from the U.S. Embassy in April 1975.

It was an extremely difficult assimilation for the entire Tran family. Phuc’s father, a lawyer in Vietnam, wound up working in a tire factory; his mother, who didn’t speak a word of English, at first worked peeling apples at a local orchard while facing innumerable obstacles trying to keep the household afloat, especially after her second son, Lou, came along. The entire family struggled financially, socially, and psychologically.

Phuc Tran (his first name is pronounced “Fook” in the U.S.) grew up under the iron thumb of his abusive father and his pliant mother. Outside their apartment, he faced racist taunts and bullies virtually every day of his young life as the only Asian child in his elementary school—and the only Vietnamese person many of his classmates had ever seen.

The family benefited from the kindness of sponsoring families. But finding them an apartment and manual-labor jobs and donating clothes and food only went so far. “Random strangers had saved us,” Tran writes. “And random strangers were cruel to us, too.”

Later he explains that his family became symbols “long before any of us could identify that feeling of being a symbol: symbols of the war, icons of America’s foreign policy, representatives of a country that people had seen only on silver screens and the convex glass of TV sets. I felt my symbolism long before I knew it. When I was young and people hated me, called me a gook or a chink, or asked me where I was from, I thought: Why isn’t this happening to other kids? How is it happening to me when people don’t know me?”

Tran found solace in elementary school by hanging out with other young nerds and immersing himself in all things Star Wars. That helped, to a point. But things got worse when he hit middle school. His defense was to align himself with skateboard-riding punk rockers. He quickly passed an informal initiation and became a member of that rough-housing clique.

They skated, they banged heads to punk rock music, they committed petty crimes. At the same time, though, Phuc Tran worked hard at school and excelled academically. He finally got out from under his father’s stifling child-rearing and Carlisle’s narrow-mindedness and bigotry when he went off to Bard College in New York where he studied classics. Today Tran lives with his own family in Maine where he has taught high school Latin for twenty years—and where he also owns a tattoo parlor.

Phuc Tran’s classics training shines through in his creative and evocative memoir. Each chapter title is a notable work of literature. The titles alone provide more than an inkling of the course of his young life, especially The Plague, Crime and Punishment, The Scarlet Letter, A Christmas Carol, Madame Bovary, Pygmalion, The Metamorphosis, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and The Iliad

There’s plenty of humor and wit here, too, along with lots of clever word play. Here, for example, is how Tran describes what it was like for him and his skateboarding peeps when he discovered girls in middle school:

“Any compassion and kinship I felt for my friends was countered by a bubbling awareness of girls and their growing awareness of boys. It’s not you, it’s me—actually, it’s not me, either. It’s girls. They’re Yoko-ing our band, boys.”

He even coins a new verb, “to Vietnamese.” As in: “My parents stood by the fence and Vietnamesed quietly with each other while Lou and I played.”

Sigh, Gone provides a vivid and eye-opening look at yet another legacy of the American War in Vietnam: what life was like for Vietnamese children and their families who escaped from their homeland and were transplanted in small-town U.S.A.


My favorite fictional lawman is, hands down, the troubled but saintly Cajun Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Robicheaux. Dave is the creation of the gifted novelist James Lee Burke and he’s been with us in 22 first-rate detective/thrillers starting with The Neon Rain, which came out in 1987. Judging by clues about his hero’s age that Burke dropped in several of the books, Dave today would be in his early eighties.

I’d been wondering how Burke—who’s 83 himself—would handle his man-of-action hero when Dave hit octogenarian-hood. I found out in Burke’s 23rd Robicheaux, A Private Cathedral (Simon & Schuster, 416 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle). In it, Burke cleverly sets the clock back to some time (he never spells out exactly when; which is fine) before 9/11. So Dave is a spry sixty-something in yet another beautifully written, gripping tale with over-the-top bad guys and a clever, twisting plot that kept me turning pages till the end.

This time Dave—who survived a horrendous tour of duty in the Vietnam War and is haunted by that experience—gets involved hip deep with the latest iterations of James Lee Burke-created sociopathic bad guys: the heads of two rival southern Louisiana families, both of whom are up to horrendously foul deeds. As always, Dave fights the evildoers and stands up for their victims with his partner in anti-crime (and in the occasional misdemeanor), P.I. Clete Purcell. A former Marine who also served in Vietnam, Clete was Dave’s one-time compadre on the New Orleans PD until their well-intentioned extracurricular activities went too far and they were both canned.

This time around, Burke adds a mystical element, something we’ve seen in only a few other Robicheaux books, including In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. Dave and Clete run up against spooky ghost ships on the bayou and an even spookier character who, at times, physically resembles a reptile.

I am not a science fiction fan and have little use for magical realism—or virtually any other kind of literary voodoo. But Burke makes these not-of-this-earth elements meld seamlessly into the narrative and had me almost believing they existed—at least in Dave’s mind.

As in all of the Robicheaux books, Dave (and Clete’s) Vietnam War experiences are close to the surface. As always, Burke renders Dave’s not infrequent flashbacks beautifully and always uses the right mix of Nam War GI slang and blunt depictions of war’s horrors to conjure up how the war affected his psyche.

For instance, in this meditation on human cruelty, Dave recalls the time when he called in a Puff the Magic Dragon—an AC-47 Spooky Gunship—“on a ville after the enemy trapped us in a rice paddy and let loose with RPGs and a captured blooker [an M-79 grenade launcher] and a 50-caliber with trace rounds before banging ass into the jungle. I still remember the sparks twisting into the evening sky, the glow of the hooches, the screams of the children. I told myself I had no alternative. Am I telling the truth? To this day, I hate people who assure me I did nothing wrong.”

As usual, Dave—who, by the way, has his own Wikipedia page—continues to battle the bottle, gets involved with a woman whom everybody (but him) knows is nothing but trouble, fights like hell for innocent people (including people of color), and deals with other cops who are not as honest and empathic as he is. Plus, he has more than one dust-up with his best friend Clete, and in the end—well, I strongly recommend reading A Private Cathedral to find out.




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