Page 2 of 2 BOOK REVIEW
US rattled by Vietnam War skeletons Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes Girl by the Road at Night: A Novel of Vietnam by David Rabe Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam
by Wayne Karlin
Reviewed by Nick Turse
Guided by Karlin's compelling and poignant prose, readers come to understand
the ways that both DNA testing and balancing an egg on the point of a chopstick
are used, sometimes even in tandem, as the means to sort out a messy, traumatic
wartime past, allowing families to find closure and move on at the same time as
the country relentlessly presses forward commercially and economically.
Like Karlin's Wandering Souls, David Rabe's The Girl By the Road at
Night: A Novel of Vietnam focuses on two intertwined lives - again, one
American, the other Vietnamese. But much more than
in Matterhorn or even Wandering Souls, combat is reduced to only
the faintest din - some outgoing artillery that has become everyday background
Rabe's Quach Ngoc Lan is an ordinary Vietnamese like so many other wartime
farm-girls whose fathers and brothers were conscripted or killed, whose homes
were destroyed, whose tight-knit families were scattered to far-off slums or
refugee camps, and whose lives began to revolve around the men of the American
For the luckiest, this might mean a job working at a US mess hall or as a
hootch-maid, making beds and shining boots. Many others worked as bar girls or
in US-military-approved "steam-and-creams" where dozens of women, each in her
own cubicle, provided low-priced hand-jobs or in so-called Sin Cities where
full-on intercourse was de rigueur.
Then there were more standard brothels and various bars, shacks, apartments and
hotels where women and girls plied their trade. Quach (called Lan in the book)
is at the low end of the sex-work spectrum, servicing GIs at a carwash catering
to military vehicles that typifies the profligacy and sheer waste of the
American way of war.
By the end of the conflict, South Vietnam reportedly boasted more than 500,000
prostitutes who had serviced men like Private Joseph Whitaker, Quach's "numba
one" - to use the language of Rabe's Vietnamese speakers - customer. Pidgin
English in the hands of American authors can be grating and degrading, but not
in Girl By the Road at Night.
it's because Rabe's Vietnamese are fully realized characters, not some cameo
Tiger Scouts who breeze in and out of other works of Vietnam War literature.
And it's through their stories that Rabe offers a clear vision of a society
torn asunder and ordinary lives imploded by the American War.
Quach, however, offers the most complete portrait - one of a young girl who has
become permanently tainted in her society in order that her family might
survive. After Le Xuan Thuc, a farmer forced from a life that sustained his
family for a thousand years and now left to make chatskis, admonishes Quach for
her work, he admits, "Like the eel you burrow in the mud, Lan, and yet you give
money to your family, so in that you are a good daughter."
With combat absent, we're left with violence of a different sort. This isn't
the brutal gang-rape of the teenage victim in Heinemann's Paco's Story,
tied up with commo wire and bent over a table, it's Quach being grabbed and
manhandled and threatened when the price she quotes to two GIs for a
"short-time" is deemed too high.
It's the violence that springs from utter inequity, the violence that comes
when a heavily-armed force of teenagers, steeped in plenty of racism and
sexism, is unleashed on a foreign land with little restraint but plenty of
purchasing power. A violence that means Quach can't even get a fair price for
servicing their seemingly insatiable sexual appetites. "I mean, we really don't
have to give you nothin', do we, slope? ... We don't, because you're a stupid
goddamn whore ... Just remember we come all the way over here to help you in
this shitty-assed country," one GI tells her.
That soldier speaks for the whole American operation in Vietnam, one that
surfaces page after page, although rarely so overtly. Instead, through Rabe's
vivid prose - shaped and formed by an obvious craftsman - we read about the
effects of the conflict in passing and are left to ask and answer questions
ourselves. What has led Vietnamese children to become beggars, thieves and
grasping guides for wayward GIs?
Why are so many of them seen "scampering around on hills of glittering garbage"
at the American dump? What has transformed their older sisters from modest,
demure girls to those that sit on the laps of GIs and chirp "Can do fuck-fuck
me" and their mothers into women whom GIs "rubbed [themselves] into release,
ignoring their bitterness and boredom?" Why does Quach Ngoc Lan's uncle, Quach
Van Khiem tell her "The altars in the homes of the Vietnamese people have today
more pictures than people to pray before them"? And what does he mean by "So
Bombs, shells and bullets tore apart Vietnamese hamlets, homes and families,
but with nary an explosion Rabe's Girl By the Road at Night - a book
more than 330 pages shorter than Matterhorn - paints as thorough and
heartrending a picture of the destruction of Vietnamese life as most Americans
are likely to come across.
Thinking about a relative by marriage who was killed in "terrible fighting" and
dumped into a mass grave or left "to be eaten by the animals," Quach wonders if
she would "be like Huy, wandering between the two worlds, homeless and
Today, as ever more Vietnamese become more economically secure and able to
carry out searches, more of those souls long-wandering between worlds, like
North Vietnamese medic Hoang Ngoc Dam whose bones were finally located a few
years ago, are finally returning home. Now, however there are new worlds to
navigate in Vietnam, less brutal than those brought about by war, but still
jarring and vexing.
In the lead-up to Liberation Day 2010, I had lunch at a restaurant on Saigon's
Le Quy Don Street that is managed, my fixer explained, by none other than Dang
Tuyet Mai. For the uninitiated, Dang was the wife of Nguyen Cao Ky - the South
Vietnamese air force commander who dies recently [See
South Vietnam's unlikely leader dies, Asia Times Online, July 26] who
later served as prime minister and then vice president of South Vietnam - and
was immortalized in a 1966 photograph of her and her then-husband, wearing
matching garish black flight suits, complete with contrasting scarves and dark
sunglasses, inspecting a battlefield where hundreds of Hoang Ngoc Dam's
compatriots, now the official heroes of Vietnam, were reportedly killed.
By all appearances, her restaurant - located just steps from the War Remnants
Museum where US and South Vietnamese atrocities are chronicled - is doing well
(and, I can attest, serving a tasty faux clay pot rice with beef, broccoli and
Dang is now a respected business woman and her ex-husband was facilitating
investment by Americans in that hyper-capitalist, but officially socialist
country. They're both doing well in today's Vietnam - far better than many
veterans of the American War who suffered years of hardship and privation to
reunify their country.
There is a place in today's Vietnam for Dang and Nguyen. A place too, for "war
martyrs" like Hoang Ngoc Dam. But what of women like Quach Ngoc Lan? Young
girls used up and cashed out by the Americans. Women who may have survived in
stigma or died in squalor with no picture to place on family altars which can
now even include photos of once unacknowledgable US-allied South Vietnamese
military dead. What became of them? And what becomes of their memory?
Hopefully, the next generation of Vietnam War literature will skip a simple
re-hash of US soldiers' stories and help to answer these and other lingering
questions of civilians caught in the path of the American War.
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. El Leon
Literary Arts; First Edition edition (April 1, 2009). ISBN-10: 0979528534.
Price US$8.80, 690 pages.
Girl by the Road at Night: A Novel of Vietnam by David Rabe. Simon &
Schuster; 1 edition (June 1, 2010). ISBN-10: 1439163332. Price US$23, 240
Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam by
Wayne Karlin. Publisher: Nation Books; 1 edition (September 1, 2009). ISBN-10:
1568584059. Price US$25.95, 376 pages.
Nick Turse is a historian, essayist, investigative journalist, the
associate editor of TomDispatch.com, and currently a fellow at Harvard
University's Radcliffe Institute. His latest book is
The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan(Verso Books). You can follow
him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr,
and on Facebook. His website
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