Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Mini-Review: “Lost Soldiers” by James Webb

Once I find an author whose work I really appreciate, I will often read several works by that writer in succession. I have been on a James Webb kick of late, so here is another mini-review of a Webb novel. “Lost Soldiers,” written in 2001, continues Webb’s life-long process of coming to grips with what happened to him and other Marines and soldiers in Viet Nam.

The protagonist, Brandon Condley, never really left Viet Nam – at least not emotionally. In this novel, Condley works on behalf of the teams that are tasked with identifying the bodies of those who were KIA and whose remains are finally being turned over by the government of Viet Nam. This is a complex tale of promises made and broken – on a personal level and on a trans-national level. The characters in this book together provide a window into the aftermath of the Viet Nam war. The tale is told with intricate and intimate writing. I often felt that I had been transported to Viet Nam as the author wove a web of intrigue and stunning details – sounds, smells, and sights of the mysterious Southeast Asian nation that has captivated the imagination of America for so many decades.

Here are some samples of Webb’s superb writing:

“Brandon Condley loved Sai Gon. It was the museum of his own heart, a tortured and yet insistently happy city where along the streets his memories could once again race and dive amid the fecund ferment, the mangled but sly-eyed beggars, the crumbling old French buildings now conquered and abused, the rivers muddy and eternal, the toothless cyclo drivers suborning him from the roadsides, the motorbikes loud and reckless, begging for the future, the never-ending stares, the measuring smiles, welcoming and wary, the con games of bright minds trapped inside dumb lives, the odd, funky food cooked on the streets, the black puddles on the sidewalks, wet from rain and urine and wash water thrown out of doorways, the stench of all that mixed together. In all an instant beauty, pushing up through the muck of a fierce and dreadful past like Buddha’s lotus, a beauty just as real as what his own past might have become, always pushing, insistent as a weed, fresh as the future.” (Page 40)

Reading this paragraph makes me wish I could paint a picture with words as skillfully as Webb is able to do. Here is another passage that sets the scene for two warriors – one American and one Vietnamese – taking the measure of one another:

“Colonel Pham’s formality was to be expected. Perhaps fifteen years older than Condley, the former Viet Cong soldier was rarely emotional in public and almost deceptively nondescript. Condley had learned tat the colonel’s controlled emotions were a camouflage that hid the kind of man whom in Asia too many Americans overlooked at their peril, and usually to their later regret. The colonel’s teeth were stained from years of strong tobacco and poor dental hygiene. His glasses looked as if they had been bought forty years before. Several long strands of hair grew from a mole on his chin, just to the right of his mouth. His small, paw-like hands hung slightly in front of his thighs, as if he had spent so many years carrying weight on his back – pack and weapon and rice roll – that his shoulders and fingers were permanently curved. And he clearly did not belong in a suit. He wore it loosely and messily, the collar too big, the knot on the tie too fat, the shirtsleeves too long, making him appear ungainly and even more diminutive than he actually was.

But from the first, Condley had picked up a sureness in the older man, a toughness that those who had not fought the war could never fully penetrate. Pham had made hard decisions, of the sort a mere businessman could never conceive. He had endured years in the jungle, conquering it and making it his friend. He had ordered soldiers to their death. He had killed people. And form the measuring look he and Condley had always exchanged behind their smiles, it was clear that Pham had killed Americans.

Condley knew that Pham had always read his own face just as quickly. Yes, their eyes said to each other every time they met, we both endured and we both killed. But that was then, and this is now. So where do we go from here? In a way this knowledge gladdened both of them, giving them an odd but unbreakable bond. He and Pham shared a secret kinship. They knew the truth of the battlefield, a conviction so real and permeable that neither of them would ever need to mention it to the other.” (Pages 55-6)

Webb shines the light of personal experience and understanding on the arcane fraternity of those who have fought wars and strive to make peace with that reality. Add this to your list of books well worth reading.



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