American Blood by John Nichols (University of New Mexico Press, 390 pp., $19.95, paper), a novel of the Vietnam War, was first published in 1987. The University of New Mexico has seen fit to republish it in 2014 in a new paperback edition.
Nothing about the cover reminds me of the Vietnam War I took part in. I never saw an Army field jacket in Vietnam, for one thing. And what is that around the trooper’s neck? It looks like a wool scarf, not the small green towels that many grunts used to soak up sweat. The netting on the helmet is there to put twigs and leaves in for camouflage, but the way it’s pictured here would catch on vines and limbs when an infantryman tried to make his way through the jungle. So much for verisimilitude.
Since seventy-three-year old John Nichols did not serve in the military and I believe never has been to Vietnam, I expected his novel would display the sort of analytical purity and distance that can come from experiential innocence. Perhaps due to his exposure to the Vietnam War through the media—during the war and in the 1980s with the proliferation of movies and books related to the war—he thought he’d attained the knowledge he needed to write a novel about the war.
The first thing I noticed in American Blood was a lack of specificity of detail related to main character Michael Smith’s service in Vietnam. That would be explained by Nichols’ lack of experience with the military and with the Vietnam War. Nichols includes things that few, if any, Vietnam War novelists and memoirists would consider.
Paragraph one, for example, includes a list of “Greatest Generation” men who have spoken of the necessity of waging war to make peace possible: Richard Nixon, William Westmoreland, Curtis Lemay, Ronald Reagan, and Douglas MacArthur.” Nichols goes on to quote Gerald Ford, “All wars are the glory and the agony of the young.”
This novel is told in the first person by an ostensible Vietnam War veteran, Michael P. Smith, who talks of “performing fellatio on the great god of Carnage, Mars.” Is this a believable Vietnam veteran? Not hardly, to quote John Wayne.
Gerald Ford is mentioned twice in one short sequence. That’s something that’s never happened in any other Vietnam War novel I have read. Hell, Ford is never mentioned once in any Vietnam War novel I can remember.
As for John Wayne, Smith says, “Far as I was concerned, Jane Fonda and John Wayne could both go fuck themselves.” Now that is one alienated Vietnam War veteran–but not one I am familiar with, even though I share the sentiment.
Nichols knows New Mexico and has written well about that state. So when Smith moves there to link up with his old Vietnam War buddy, Tom Carp, the book regains a bit of credibility. But just as I was lulled by the New Mexico writing, Smith makes a friend, Willie Pacheco, who “was court-martialed out of ‘Nam, dismissed with dishonor.”
Then Nichols has Pacheco saying he is receiving an eighty percent disability check for his war wounds. Note to Nichols: a man with a dishonorable discharge forfeits his rights to government benefits, except under extraordinary (and rare) circumstances.
“We treated the whole country like a free-fire zone, ” Smith says, and then gives a list of crimes Americans perpetrated in Vietnam. The list is headed by Agent Orange and ends with water torture. Smith talks of “terracide against their country, against their souls.” He goes on to say that we used herbicides against the forests and we poisoned the rice paddies. It’s difficult to argue with any of this, but there was a war going on .
The rest of the book involves Michael Smith trying to fit into that small New Mexico town. Because Tom Carp is there—a guy who raped an NVA female soldier in a Huey gunship, and then tossed her out—the reader knows that Smith’s path to a quiet small town life will be rocky.
Smith gets a job with the town newspaper, falls in love with a waitress who works in a local greasy spoon and who has a teen-aged daughter, and they seem to be making a life together.
Spoiler alert: The daughter goes out for a pack of cigarettes and is murdered. Her mother and Smith believe that Tom Carp did it, but lack evidence. They find evidence, but Carp cheats them of vengeance by committing suicide, and our loving couple is free to live happily ever after.
This book is not for the squeamish or for those who bristle at the stereotype of the deranged killer Vietnam veteran. Michael Smith, though, is presented as a saint–another Vietnam veteran saved by the love of a good woman.
I highly recommend this book to those who have a love of hyperbolic, phantasmagorical writing, writing that is so extreme it makes you laugh at the wrong moments. If you have trouble with discerning what is fantasy and what is reality, this book is not for you.
I do believe, though, that the Vietnam War provokes writers and artists to wrestle with fantasy and reality and it deserves extreme language. Nichols is just the man for that job.