Somewhere between its start in 1955 and its shameful end nearly twenty years later in April 1975, America’s tragically misguided war in the Communist-rife Asian lands of Viet Nam was turned into a fetish object largely by – and for – those who had been too scared or too young to go and fight. In particular, the realm of pop culture became enmeshed in the war’s grand sweep of exoticism and danger. The youth-driven rock music of the 1960s, with its roots in the previous decade’s slow smolder first lit by the music and look of Elvis Presley – only to then ignite further upon the sight and sound of The Beatles and subsequent British Invasion – came to full and total conflagration with the chart-topping release of The Doors’ pop-erotic 1967 hit “Light My Fire.” It was not too long afterward that America’s definitive cowboy, John Wayne, produced and released a pro-war film called The Green Berets (1968). Such were the culture wars in America at the time, when what was still being regarded by the Johnson Administration as a “police action” in some far-away South Asian country began slowly to transmogrify into a vast and snarling beast captured each night on America’s TV news reports – only to be released again each following day, while the military draft continued to pull more and more of America’s young mercilessly out on to the jungle killing floor of the Viet Cong.
The eventual reaction from within the youth culture during the latter half of the 1960s was to rebel against this institutionalized death count with a call to end the war in Viet Nam. By the year 1969 – at which time the “X”-rated and eventual Oscar-winning film Midnight Cowboy presented the John Wayne “cowboy” image (embodied by actor Jon Voight’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Texas-born character “Joe Buck”) as a neophyte gay hustler lost “back East” in New York City – the American pop music scene had begun to present songs and images that served as active protest against a war that had snuffed out so many thousands of American and Vietnamese lives over there in that other “back East” a few miles off from Saigon.
By the time of the early to mid-’70s, however, a growing series of American films began to take on the Viet Nam War more and more directly. Ostensibly set in the Eisenhower-era time of the Korean War, Robert Altman’s wildly popular anti-war comedy M*A*S*H went full-tilt into a satire of what many saw as the senselessness happening right then over in Viet Nam. More films followed that touched on the topic more directly, but the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (1975) blasted the issue out into the open. By this time, those Americans who had served and survived in Viet Nam were coming back home – only to be met by a society changed so radically that our returning soldiers must have felt trapped in some sad endless purgatory. The rock music, and especially the drugs, that had followed many of these young soldiers into overseas combat now left only the trace marks of ennui and addiction upon their bodies and minds. And the intended nobility with which the entertainment industry first insinuated itself years before into the anti-war movement had, by the late 1970s with release of big Hollywood films like Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winning film The Deer Hunter (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), begun to hold up the Viet Nam War as a totem of taboo curiosity and subsequent surrogate worship for the next generation of predominantly male American youth. By the end of the 1980s, Viet Nam had become mere backdrop to the projected heroics of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo films and the auterist chic of director Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Things seemed to have gone around full circle to the John Wayne-laden jingoism let loose in his Green Berets.
There have, of course, been exceptions. The films of Viet Nam vet writer/director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth) sought to address firmly the realities of America’s role in that war, even if his loudly bravura movie-making style did much to glamorize involvement with and knowledge of that conflict among the civilian population. However, the one film that in many ways seems to have caught the real truth – and price – of the Viet Nam War as filtered through the conscience of the Americans who lived through that experience remains the Hal Ashby directed 1978 film Coming Home. Released forty years ago this year and focused more directly on the traumatic effects of Viet Nam upon those left in or returning to the United States, its story is a personal and muted – yet large and profound – one. And it is that film I find myself thinking of after having just read Syllables of Rain (Rainbow Ridge Books / Square One, dist.), the sparse yet vital new novel from acclaimed writer and returning Vietnam vet D. S. Lliteras.
Having already written an equally excellent semi-autobiographical novel about his experiences in war titled Viet Man (which won the Gold Medal for Literary Fiction by the Military Writers Society of America earlier this year), Lliteras bases his new work firmly upon the homeward spray of domestic shores. The story begins in the Norfolk, Virginia area of the early 1970s. We first encounter our protagonist, Llewellen, having just been left by his woman, Sandy, and set off on a dark night of the soul. Alone with what Sandy had condemned as his “kept secrets,” Llewellen drives to Baltimore, Maryland in an effort to find … well, that’s just it, he isn’t really sure. All he does know is that Baltimore remains the place where he once had friendship and connection with a friend named only as “Jansen.” As it turns out, Jansen is no longer alive, but Llewellen runs into a friend and fellow vet – “Cookie” – who also once sought and now misses the calming influence that the absent Jansen had provided him as well. They then keep each other company for a few days, drinking and talking a bit about their lives before having to decide what each will do with the rest of their post-war lives.
That’s about it, in terms of narrative arc – this is not a tale that invests itself largely in measures of plot and action. Instead, Syllables of Rain attempts and achieves something far richer than yet another war story. The book is itself a survivor of the Viet Nam War – a starkly soulful testament to grief and renewal possessed of deep yet airy nuance, and a shadow world of unspoken rage and unseen thought. A carefully provocative stylist, Lliteras ups his game in this new work by marrying his prose with short etches of Zen-drenched poetry presented at the end of each short chapter in the Japanese “haibun” style most akin to haiku. Less is certainly more throughout, as the short poems serve to exemplify and sometimes contradict what characters say and do across each smooth chapter.
There is also a great amount of poetry in the prose as well. Seemingly simple, even mundane, words like “okay,” “alright,” “yes,” and “no” are repeated both in dialogue and description throughout the book in a way that feels more like rich incantation than bored repetition. In a subtly earned way, this hypnotically spare novel of only 176 pages stands as the mirror opposite of protagonist Leopold Bloom’s single day evoked over more than 700 pages in James Joyce’s 1920s classic Ulysses. Both books can be said to be about heroes – and both books are heroic in each authors’ style and method.
In the end, precision and economy remain for many the purest form of truth one can hope to attain in art as perhaps in life. And so just as director Hal Ashby ended Coming Home with the single word “OUT” appearing on the screen, Lliteras ends his poignant new look at an old war survived with the word “paper.” It is then that we readers understand how lucky we are that this small miracle of a book has been put down on the written page. As the late twentieth-century American poet T.S. Eliot observed in his poem “The Hollow Men” (read aloud, and not coincidentally, by Marlon Brando’s “Colonel Kurtz” in the aforementioned Apocalypse Now), “this is the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper.” What we must now thankfully realize, though – thanks to the poetics of war and peace at the heart of both Coming Home and Syllables of Rain – is that a new world will often only begin in that exact same way.