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Posts Tagged ‘fatal light’

The weapon in my right hand is a pirated Ithaca Magnum-10 shotgun, gas-operated, semi-automatic, a full-choke barrel sawed down to ten inches for ease in single-hand handling at close quarters.  It was captured from a North Vietnamese officer, later presented to me as a gift.

The bulge in my left hip pocket is a soggy paperback edition of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

Such things live together here, poetry and shotguns.  Alive and well in a single body.

(from Fatal Light, page 46)

First published in 1988, Fatal Light is the story of a young man who receives his draft notice in 1967 at the age of 18 and is sent to Vietnam as a medic.  Richard Currey uses some of his own experiences as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam, but he says the book is “highly fictionalized” (page xiii) and draws also from the experiences of people he knew.  Fatal Light is not a linear novel, but more like snippets from the life of a young soldier who becomes disillusioned with war and life after all that he witnesses.

The unnamed narrator is close to his family, and Currey gives a glimpse of what his life is like before the war.  He spends summers with his grandfather, has a girlfriend for whom he bought a ring just before being drafted, and spends the night before recruit training listening to his father’s stories from World War II and Korea and dancing in the living room with his mother.  And then his life changes dramatically.

As a medic, he is told he will be in the rear most of the time and have people looking out for him.  They make it seem like war will be easy for him.  Instead, he sees men minus heads after their jeep hits a mine, and he sees soldiers go nuts, shooting random villagers and keeping body parts of the dead Viet Cong as souvenirs.

Because the novel is written as snippets from the narrator’s life and war experiences, the chapters are short and disjointed.  There are only a few other characters, and you don’t see too much of them.  There are odd dreamlike sequences when the narrator is suffering from malaria.  But they join together to form a powerful and heartbreaking story about the way the war changed the men who fought.  The prose is sometimes sparse, sometimes poetic, but the scenes are full of emotion and description that tear at your heart, punch you in the gut, and thrust you into the scene.

Sleep ceased to be rest, was never an escape.  Dreams careened, haunted, collided, and I was always forced to look:  the double amputees, incinerated faces with lips burned off and teeth locked in satanic grins, bodies in decay and distended with gas, fingers and noses and ears rat-gnawed, the ones floating face down in paddies pulled out after days with tongues and eyeballs protruding from macerated skulls and their gunshot wounds looked so innocent, so simple.  On the road out of a northern ville I saw a dog eating the body of a man.  The man had been shot in the head, eviscerated, tossed aside.  The dog pulled at a dirty loop of intestine, one paw braced against the opened belly.  The passing scene on any ordinary day.  (page 96)

If this nauseating scene was ordinary, it’s no surprise that many Vietnam veterans have trouble talking about their experiences.  Currey forces readers to consider these scenes because war isn’t pretty.  There is a scene right after the narrator comes home in which he shows his grandfather pictures from Vietnam that he took as proof of what really happened.  His grandfather tells him not to show people because they won’t want to see them and aren’t ready to see them.

The truth about war is that it’s terrible and grotesque, it destroys innocence and scars people’s souls.  The truth hurts, it angers, and it leaves men who’ve witnessed this truth wondering what to do and where to go with all they have seen and learned.  Fatal Light emphasizes this from the first page until the last, but Currey takes these horrifying images of war and turns them into a beautifully crafted, powerful novel.

Disclosure: I borrowed Fatal Light from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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