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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Return: a Novel of Vietnam by Charles W. Sasser

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I've read a couple of Sasser's autobiographical works, as well as 100th Kill--his other Vietnam novel. While I appreciate his perspective (he's a vet of the Special Forces Reserves, an author and a rancher, among other things), I've always found his writing to be competent, but not stellar. By his own admission he is not the most talented writer...but he is hard-working at his craft (if any of you remember the paramilitary magazines of the '80s competing with Soldier Of Fortune, he wrote many articles for them). So I wasn't quite prepared for the caliber of this novel.

The Return is one fine work of fiction--probably Sasser's best, though I haven't read all his books to state that emperically.

The narrator is Jack Kazmarek, a widower with miriad health problems on top of his PTSD. For many years he has been neighbors with another Vietnam vet, Pete Brauer. Both of them were mustang officers--having taken their lumps as enlisted men prior to being commissioned. Kazmarek was a platoon leader in the 9th Infantry, while Brauer had been a Navy SEAL. Although both of them spent a tour in the same AO during the same time, they never met until retiring in the same Florida trailer park decades later.

The story opens on the loss of Kazmarek's closest friend. Pete dies alone in his trailer, clutching a photo of a beautiful French-Vietnamese woman. Jack has noticed the portrait in his friend's house over the years (even finding her face familiar), but Pete rarely talked about it. His only mention of the woman in the image was cryptic: "May God forgive me."

Jack is almost as intrigued as I was. Eventually he begins investigating, to find out who the woman was and where she might be now. The investigation leads Jack back to Vietnam where he must confront some of his own long-buried demons.

The story is filled in with flashbacks--some of Jack's own, but most by the people who remembered Pete and Mhai (the woman in the photo). All the reader's curiosity is satisfied by the end, as we learn just how extensively Jack and Pete crossed each others' paths during that insane conflict.

Sasser is not your typical war novelist who portrays American involvement in Indochina as one huge Mai-Lai massacre. And yet he does depict atrocities committed by Americans. And there is surprising depth to all the main characters, including the Viet Cong, who are treated as even-handedly as any reasonable person could hope for. Sasser's Vietnam is not black or white, but a convoluted, maddening mess of grays. Perhaps the Cong sympathizers (which comprise most of our government, media and education establishments) would even enjoy how, in the novel, US forces suffer a significant tactical defeat--something that didn't happen but makes the VC seem more heroic in retrospect. Everyone conveniently forgets that failure to achieve victory in Vietnam was mandated by the very government that put Americans in harm's way to begin with. The VC and NVA didn't defeat the US military--the "war" was lost in the Oval Office.

There are a few plot twists Sasser has in store, and I didn't deduce all of them beforehand correctly. Characters are complex and believable. Narrator Jack Kazmarek has political opinions, but the story "he" tells lets the chips fall where they may, regardless of who it may please or offend (in fact, it reminds me somewhat of The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna). There's enough action and conflict to keep you turning pages, and even a few tugs at your emotions here and there.

This is a very good novel.

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