Sunday, March 27, 2016

Meditations in Green - Stephen Wright

The foot rides the accelerator down to the floor.
The tires, working the road outside, pick up a rhythm from the radio, drum a rhythm onto the pavement, roll a rhythm through the body, lock a rhythm into the wheels of the head, and bam! blood explodes in the piston chambers, axles rotate along the spine, gears mesh, transmission achieved. Interstate consciousness. I could drive like this forever, swift and loose, senses drowned in a shriek, headlights boring holes in the void, because somewhere out here there must be a way home. 

Bantam Books, November 1984
Stephen Wright's 1983 novel about Vietnam, Meditations in Green isn't an easy book to read. It demands a lot from the reader. There is really no sense of plot to hang onto between long passages hallucinatory scenes military life, of war and addiction. But if you stick with it you do find the rhythm and pace of the novel in a way that mirrors the boredom and horror of war and the tolls it takes on the psyches of its combatants and victims. There are many scenes that illustrate both the mundane routine and order of military life at odds with a war that has no respect for regulations and polished boots. Anyone who has spent time in the military can appreciate the way Wright translates his experiences through the eyes of one soldier, Spec. 4 James Griffin, into the novel.

Griffin is assigned to the 1069th Military Intelligence Group, where he spends days hunched over surveillance photos of Vietnam. The 1069th is also where POW's are held and interrogated. During downtime, Griffin and his fellow soldiers smoke pot, drink, gamble, hate the military, and dream of home. The 1069th is also a microcosm of the structure and dysfunction of Army life and combat and the ways it bores into the souls of its participants. You have headcase "Trips" Triplett, virginal Indiana kid Claypool, by-the-book Major Holly, Vegetable, Simon and Wendell living among the insanity of war and reacting in kind. Routine is observed and retaliated against with massive doses of drugs, insomnia, insanity and fear. And the cracks show:

The war had gone on too long, a joke without a punchline. Da Nang already resembled a hippie ghetto. In the offices there desktops were concealed beneath dumps of neglected paperwork, personal correspondence, hometown newspapers, cock books, stale food, half-empty soda cans, and Styrofoam cups fuzzy with mold; once-aseptic walls had become infected with a creeping fungus of pinups, film and travel posters, family photographs, and crudely drawn, militantly obscene short-timers calendars. 

The chapters of the novel are broken by Meditations in Green, Griffin's dreams of nature. Green dominates the novel, in landscape, foliage, camouflage, jungles, mountains, sunsets, paint and horror. Life after coming home is spent getting high, chasing solitude, looking for solace, undergoing therapy and looking for answers that don't exist. Griffin befriends a social worker named Huey (Huette Mirandella) and entertaining Trips's planned retribution against the sergeant who killed his dog.

It's a strange book, not for everyone, but certainly one I'd recommend to readers who admire war novels. Veterans and their families would also appreciate it. It's probably not on many reading lists like the classics we all know, but it deserves an audience regardless.

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