It seems an appropriate coincidence that on Veteran’s Day I should be reviewing a book on war. That’s what Carl Melcher Goes To Vietnam is about. It is not a philosophical treatise nor a rambling historical survey, but instead a simple story about a young man caught up in war.
Carl Melcher straddles the line between fiction and autobiography. The author, Paul Clayton, clearly fictionalized his own experiences in writing this novel and the work, in e-book format, was nominated for the 2001 Frankfurt e-Book Award as non-fiction. But in fictionalizing the story Clayton has in many ways taken it out of time and place. Instead of the story of one particular person in one particular war it becomes a story about coming of age and about the absurdities of war.
The basic plot line is simple. Carl flunks out of college, gets drafted, and sent to Vietnam. Once there he finds himself in a weird no mans land between full out war and all the death and destruction than entails and the safety of home. The enemy is out there, and on occasion attacks “the hill” where Carl is stationed, but he also seems just beyond Carl’s reach. Out in the jungle far from action, and where everything is shielded by the lush vegetation, Carl wonders if the whole things isn’t a giant fake training exercise. It is only when the war intrudes more deeply, and when Carl’s buddies are killed, that he is forced to deal with the ugly reality.
There is a simplicity and sparseness to the writing that matches the plot. At times it reminded me of Hemmingway’s A Farewell To Arms. Not because Clayton’s prose is like Hemmingway’s, but because of the way it touches on the feelings of pointlessness in war and the desire to see love transcend war. Carl is naive and almost blank. He seems to be drifting through life unsure of where he wants to go or even who he is as a person. In this sense he is almost passive. And yet he represents the average man caught up in circumstances beyond his control. The men around him have stronger desires and more fully developed ideas about how the world works. Ron is the angry black man who nevertheless wants to be a leader. Glock is the older action orientated soldier, a man who wants to get things done. B-O-B is the talkative know-it-all. Carl isn’t sure what to make of all this. He just wants to get along and survive his year of duty. He tries to escape through the books his parents send him.
Through his discussions with others and through his reading – Sidhartha for example – Carl tries to make sense of the world. He tries to take a sort of Buddhist attitude – a belief that good karma will rebound to one’s benefit. But the war doesn’t reward this attitude. Instead, war brings death and pain to good and bad in equal measure.
Carl’s naivete and the sparseness of the prose give the story a sort of poignancy. The events are not embellished with excess words or pumped up with forced emotions. Clayton has captured the feelings and experiences because he has lived them; he doesn’t need to embellish them because they are real even if slightly fictionalized. There is an honesty and clarity that comes through.
But in many ways the book also lacks a certain punch in the end. Carl seems almost too simple, he lacks a deeper core. As Carl moves through the story we get his surface thoughts and his reactions to the events around him, but we don’t get the sense that we really know him or that he really knows himself. When he falls in love, it feels more like an infatuation with a beautiful women than passionate love. In his relationships with those around he seems like an observer rather than a participant. He expresses affection and regret but the reader doesn’t really feel those emotions. There seems to be a distance between everything including Carl’s emotions.
Despite this weakness, I found Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam and interesting and entertaining read. It captures the brutal nature of war and the helpless feeling one can get from being swept up in events beyond your control. I think comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are specious for the most part, but with US troops fighting abroad it is worth thinking about the ugliness of war and its impact on young men and women nonetheless. On Veteran’s Day it is appropriate to say a prayer for those serving in harms way and to be thankful for those who have defended this country.