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.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Stranger in Town - Clifton Adams

"It's unbelievable," the doctor said, "the things decent men will do because of fear."

Paperback Library Edition - January 1969

My first exposure to Clifton Adams was through his terrific noir novel, Death's Sweet Song. If you get a chance to read that one, do so. Looking up other books I found that Adams wrote a fair number of westerns that are relatively easy to find in the used bookstores. I picked up a handful of those westerns including Noose for a Desperado, which is easily one of the most hard-boiled/noir westerns I'd ever read up to that point. Louis L'amour never galloped down such bleak trails! Anyway, after reading a couple of Pynchon novels I was in the mood for something a bit more fun and digestible. Stranger in Town from 1960 has been sitting in my small stack of westerns for a while now.

The plot is a simple one. In the small Colorado town of Menloe John Salem finds himself on the run from a vigilante posse out to get him for the murder of a local bully named Ed Ferguson. Ferguson done made fun of young John Salem one too many times, calling him a simpleton and whatnot, that Salem finally reached his limit and blasted Ferguson dead. Then in a fit of panic Salem steals a horse belonging to local bigshot Jake Wilson and heads for the hills. This all goes down while the Sheriff Ben McDermit is away on sheriff business. McDermit returns to Menloe to discover his deputy, Jess Webb, and a handful of Menloe citizens including Jake Wilson and the shiftless Pollard brothers, have ridden out after John Salem. Sensing trouble, Ben McDermit rides out after the posse. But, as things go in novels like this, Ben's too late. Wilson and the Pollard brothers, along with Jess Webb, have already caught up to John Salem and hung him. That's what horse thieves and killers deserve, says Jake Wilson and the gang. Disgusted, Ben McDermit fires his deputy on the spot. He then orders the posse to cut down Salem's body. In doing so, they discover a letter in one of Salem's pockets. A letter from his big brother Jute McCoy. Jute McCoy is one of those badass outlaw motherfuckers with a reputation for killing. Now, the boys from Menloe have got something to be afraid of.

So there's the setup, in a neat little package, A town waiting for an outlaw's revenge. Guilt and fear stirring up suspicions and mistrust. Any stranger riding through Menloe is suspect, Is he the one? Is this Jute McCoy coming in for vengeance on the men who hung his kid brother? Is Sheriff McDermit gonna protect them? Or do they need a new sheriff instead? Someone who isn't afraid of taking the law into their own hands when required, doing what needs to be done without wasting time on trials and juries.

Then, after several weeks a traveling gun dealer who calls himself Tom Kelso rides into town. Suspicions boil over. The Pollard brothers, shiftless and mean as ever, goad Kelso into drawing his guns and when the smoke clears, one of the Pollards lay dead in a pool of blood. Now the town wants justice. They demand that Sheriff McDermit throw Kelso in jail and hang him. The problem is, that Kelso's killing of Woody Pollard was self defense. And Kelso claims he knows nothing about anyone named Jute McCoy. Still, Kelso says, maybe Jute McCoy has every right to come into Menlow and kill the men who hung his brother. Tensions mount, mobs form, guns are drawn and people die. Still, whether Kelso is really the outlaw Jute McCoy or not isn't revealed until the very last page.

I liked this one. It has a few hiccups here and there. There are some passages repeat the groundwork and themes of the novel maybe once or twice too often. But the action is well written and the Adams paints a good picture of a town coming unraveled. I'd recommend this one to fans of hardboiled fiction.