There are few events in life more perfectly suited to become fodder for the writer than the macabre spectre of war. This man-made thing lies out there in the creative ether waiting for the journalist or fiction writer to capture it - yet not all succeed. Author Paul Clayton has made the attempt with this, an autobiographical tale of his eight-month ordeal as an infantryman in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
Clayton has fashioned a pseudo-character he calls Carl Melcher, and it is this fictitious entity who experiences the terrible elements of war. But the device doesn't quite work. Obviously Melcher is Clayton; the writer has made no attempt to obscure or camouflage the fact. And so the question is, "Why?"
Why did Clayton create this Melcher person? What is so special about him? And the answer is,"Nothing." Carl is not supremely witty or brave; he is neither a great leader of men nor a coward. He is the average, unassuming, innocent young man sent to a place he knows nothing about and wants no part of. So, why didn't Clayton play himself?
Philip Caputo did this beautifully in A Rumor Of War. Caputo was Caputo. On the other side, Tim O'Brien, the most famous and most successful of ex-soldiers-turned-writers, fashioned a remarkable character in his masterful Going After Cacciato. Cacciato is funnier, braver, and crazier than O'Brien could ever be - and that's why the imaginative wordwriter gives birth to alter-personalities.
Melcher, then, is somehow removed from the place he is in and the things he sees. He walks parallel to the people and places here and never seems to come in close contact with or to intersect them. When learning that friends from his own company have died, his only reponse is an unspoken, "I felt dizzy." When told that he'd be going home early, he merely responds, "Thank you, sir."
Clayton further separates the book's reality and true reality by fictionalizing the music listened to by Melcher. At the same time, he makes reference to the novel The Time Machine, psychic Jeane Dixon and Sputnik -- people and objects that existed in the real world circa 1968. A group called The Steem Masheen provides the musical backdrop here and the lyrics, the only element of a fictitious rock 'n' roll band a reader might understand, give our main character a frame of reference. But why not use a Motown song or a Rolling Stones song of the period? Write that lyric in italics and the reader is instantly transported. The author confuses us by jumping from fiction to non-fiction and wanting us to believe that his fiction is truly reality.
There are books with more intricate tales and more cleverly written than this one. John P. McAfee's Slow Walk In A Sad Rain, Robert Peterson's Rites Of Passage: Odyssey Of A Grunt, and even James Kirkwood's quirky Some Kind Of Hero are all Vietnam stories told with urgency and drama and delicate depth.
But do no dismiss Paul Clayton entirely. He is looking for his voice and will one day find it. And when he does, we may be uttering his name in the hallowed company of those mentioned above.