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Spate of books marks Vietnam anniversary

By Kenneth Harper / May 16, 1985



Payback, by Joe Klein. New York: Knopf. 360 pp. $17.95. Another War, Another Peace, by Ronald J. Glasser. New York: Summit. 250 pp. $14.95. Around the World in Eight Days, by Ron Kovic. San Francisco: City Lights. 90 pp. $5.95 (paper). With the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and the attendant media blitz, publishers have released a spate of books about the Vietnam war. They range in form from histories to memoirs, from fact to fiction. Three books, Joe Klein's ``Payback,'' Ronald Glasser's ``Another War, Another Peace,'' and Ron Kovic's ``Around the World in Eight Days'' suggest different approaches.

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Klein, a staff member of New York Magazine, has written a poignant, moving account of five marines and their attempts to come to terms with Vietnam. Credit Klein with taking a subject that has produced caricatures (``the trip-wire veteran,'' the combat-crazed freak) and avoiding sensationalism. Payback is a sensitive, sympathetic story of Americans brought together by the savageries of war and then left to face the consequences alone in ``peaceful'' America. As Klein notes with appropriate irony, the saddest fate falls to an ex-marine named Gary Cooper. I have read many accounts by journalists who have turned these kinds of stories into grist for their mills. Those I have quickly forgotten. ``Payback'' I will not.

But memorable fiction about the war has been elusive -- and continues to be. Ronald Glasser's Another War, Another Peace details the relationship between a reluctant Army doctor, a taciturn and wily enlisted man, and the Vietnamese they alternately have to help and defend themselves from. At the core of Glasser's novel, however, is American ignorance of the manner in which the North Vietnamese Army infiltrated South Vietnam before the Tet Offensive in 1968. It is a subject perhaps better treated in nonfictional form. Glasser's first book of short stories concerning Vietnam, ``365 Days,'' is, to my mind, better than his current offering.

Another returnee, so to speak, is Ron Kovic, whose Around the World in Eight Days ultimately revives the theme of his first book, ``Born on the 4th of July,'' a moving autobiography focusing on the ways the Vietnam war shattered his life. Concerning war writing, the poet Walt Whitman remarked that ``Indirection was the path.'' In ``Around the World,'' though, Kovic merely turns circles.

Many critics, historians, and observers have noted the affinities between the effect of the Vietnam war on the United States and the impact World War I had on Britain. The better British writing on the war was mostly nonfictional. The same holds -- so far -- for American literature of the Vietnam war.

Kenneth Harper teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside campus.