Another retro review and another Vietnam book.
This one is from July 31, 2000.
I’m not sure how well it’s sold since 2000, but Haldeman told me, in a brief email exchange we had, that it’s original sales were not that good.
Review: 1968, Joe Haldeman, 1994.
Fans of Haldeman’s science fiction might be expecting an autobiographical novel when they find out that this is the story of a nineteen year old draftee who serves as a combat engineer in the Vietnam of 1968. That was the year Haldeman was a combat engineer there, and, like protagonist Spider, he was wounded then. But much of the novel doesn’t seem specifically autobiographical though Haldeman’s lean prose certainly uses his own experiences to recreate everything from the details of Vietnam’s red soil, the contents of an engineer’s demolition pack while on patrol, boobytraps, and the workings and non-workings of various weapons. Haldeman’s dry, ironic prose has the right air of understatement for horrors that need no exaggeration. Science fiction fans will also be interested to see how the horrors that drove Spider psychotic are worked into the genre fiction he writes at his therapist’s request.
Haldeman’s most famous work, The Forever War, was a metaphoric look at Vietnam. Here he shuns obliqueness to recreate an America at war. Using the novelistic techniques of Dos Passos, we learn about the persons and events of the time in documentary sections interspersed between accounts of Spider and his one time girlfriend, Beverly, whose journey skims the oceans of political dissent and counterculture existing on the home front. Spider’s troubles are only beginning when he’s evacuated back home after being wounded in an ambush that wipes out most of his patrol. The entropic workings of bureaucracy and malfunctioning machinery coincide to strip him of home, family, friends, and gainful employment. Only rarely does coincidence — and Haldeman’s coincidences are always plausible — work in his favor.
One instance leads to the book’s powerful ending.
Anyone seeking a compelling account of the year or any fan of Haldeman will want to read this novel.
My only complaint is that I would have liked to continue some of the characters’ lives past 1968, but Haldeman is faithful to the title and ends his novel on Dec. 31, 1968.