by Dr. Carolyn Schriber
Viet Man by D.S. Liters
Small irritations make wonderful essay topics. Almost anyone can describe the annoyance of a faucet dripping somewhere in the wee hours of the morning—or the incessant buzzing of a solitary mosquito seeking dinner at midnight—or the soreness of a nagging hangnail when no manicure scissors are available. Words and images flow. When it comes to agonizing pain that keeps going on day after day, paralyzing fear, or unimaginable loss, however, the story is quite different. Words fail, memories shatter, eloquence dies on the tongue. Somehow there develops a distinct inverse relationship between the depth of our feelings and our ability to remember them and talk about them.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the great number of recent novels and memoirs about the Vietnam War. Veterans have finally received approval and encouragement to talk about their experiences, only to find that they cannot easily communicate their feelings to those who were not there with them. When an author succeeds in carrying his readers directly into the jungles, the rice paddies, the strangely impersonal hootches and dusty base camps, the world of drugs and blank-eyed mama-sans, the impact of his words makes us gasp for breath and struggle for understanding.
D. S. Lliteras has managed to do exactly that in his tersely-worded literary novel, Viet Man. His narrator has no name other than “Doc.” He is a navy corpsman; who he was back home doesn’t matter. He is young–just out of high school but equipped with perceptive powers of memory and observation. He arrives in Vietnam with no idea of what the war holds in store for him, but he is determined to take charge of this experience and meet it head on. As readers, we follow him through his first patrols, his first kill, his first visit to the local red light district, the growing recognition of his own mortality.
When he describes a scene, his details are specific and honest. We don’t just learn what’s going on; we see it and smell it, feel it and hear it. In peaceful moments he speaks to us in sentences and paragraphs. When danger threatens or fear overwhelms, his mental state retreats into disjointed phrases or single words.
We learn about his broken romance back home only when something triggers his own memories. And in the end, we accompany him when he returns stateside, only to find that those at home cannot begin to understand that he now lives in a different world than the one they know.
Review by Carolyn Schriber, MWSA Reviewer