Several weeks ago I was part of a group who read through Michael Herr’s war-reporter book, Dispatches. In the group were two published authors, a writer who creates an enormous amount of online content, and myself. We picked Dispatches after completing William Zinsser’s perennially influential writing manual, On Writing Well (highly recommended if you have any hope of, uhm, writing well).
When writers effuse over another author’s work, it is worth noting. It seems especially true when the topic is shared. Of Herr’s Vietnam stories, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “We have all spent ten years trying to explain what happened to our heads and our lives in the decade we finally survived–but Michael Herr’s Dispatches puts all the rest of us in the shade.” And John le Carré, spy novelist, said simply, “The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.”
Dispatches is not an easy read. It is graphic in every way, with about as much swearing as Bad Boys 1-5. That said, I personally never felt anything so near a sense of being immersed in war from any movie (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers) as I did in portions of Dispatches. Blood, death, praying, the profane, hopelessness, hopefulness, idiocy, racism, despondency, gallows humor. The whole gambit is here.
A reviewer cannot do justice to Dispatches by reviewing it. The book will not allow such a timid feat. Some sentences left me shaking my head for their economy of words, the sheer power, unexpected beauty or audacity. Herr uses words the way writers are supposed to use them. He relentlessly forces nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs to do his bidding.
On the things one might remember:
On a cold wet day in Hue our jeep turned into the soccer stadium where hundreds of North Vietnamese bodies had been collected, I saw them, but they don’t have the force in my memory that a dog and a duck have who died together in a small explosion in Saigon. Once I ran into a soldier standing by himself in the middle of a small jungle clearing where I’d wandered off to take a leak. We said hello, but he seemed very uptight about my being there. He told me that the guys were all sick of sitting around waiting and that he’d come out to see if he could draw a little fire. What a look we gave each other. I backed out of there fast, I didn’t want to bother him while he was working. (p. 28)
This single sentence:
I got stuck for a chopper once in some lost patrol outpost in the Delta where the sergeant chain-ate candy bars and played country-and-western tapes twenty hours a day until I heard it in my sleep, some sleep, Up on Wolverton Mountain and Lonesome as the bats and the bears in Miller’s Cave and I fell into a burning ring of fire, surrounded by strungout rednecks who weren’t getting much sleep either because they couldn’t trust one of their 400 mercenary troopers or their own hand-picked perimeter guards or anybody else except maybe Baby Ruth and Johnny Cash, they’d been waiting for it so long now they were afraid they wouldn’t know it when they finally got it, and it burns burns burns...(p. 13)
With the New York Times’ Bernie Weinraub:
“I’m [Weinraub] having a low-grade nervous breakdown right now. You can’t really see it, but it’s there. After you’ve been here awhile, you’ll start having them too,” laughing at the little bit of it that was true as much as at the part of it that had become our running joke. Between the heat and the ugliness and the pressures of filing, the war out there and the JUSPAO flacks right there, Saigon could be overwhelmingly depressing, and Bernie often looked possessed by it, so gaunt and tired and underfed that he could have brought out the Jewish mother in a Palestinian guerrilla. (p. 213)
That last line, tho…
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