When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
Like at least several members of my generation, my understanding of the Vietnam War is limited to a kind of shivery awful reverence felt in the presence of veterans, or when looking at photos of the great and glorious war dead. My impressions are a mélange of movie stills (Willem Defoe), novels (Fallen Angels), songs (Adagio for Strings), photos (Eddie Adams), legends (friend’s dad’s Zippo collection), and, it must be said, Walter (The Big Lebowski). I feel like this can’t actually be the case, but I simply do not remember learning anything about the Vietnam War in school. I have read The Quiet American, but I had no idea what it was about, and I have read Tim O’Brien stories, which feature young men who had even less of an idea. Unfortunately for them, they still had to go and get themselves exploded, physically or otherwise. Cue the Adagio, cue the hairs on the back of my neck.
Given my pathetically skewed and Forrest Gump-y understanding of the Vietnam War, I was very pleased to see The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game, which was written by my former college professor, Thomas Bass, whom I consider to be a huge fucking deal, not only because he writes books and was in The New Yorker, but because he taught a class wherein we read Neuromancer. I’ll start my review with a digression, which is that there is a major problem with nonfiction books, regarding what to call them. The truth being what it is (that is, stranger than fiction), nonfiction books with titles that accurately present the facts either sound absurdly melodramatic or tremendously boring. Some nonfiction books try to circumvent this by choosing titles of impossible vagueness, but that can end up worse.
Taking a short gander at the limited selection of nonfiction books in my home at the moment, I see a book called Rebel Land, a somber-looking read about Turkey with a title which could nonetheless pass as the forgotten third in the Gone With the Wind franchise (after Scarlett). The Spy Who Loved Us attempted to solve the problem with a modest sort of pun, but puns tend to put everyone on the defensive right away. I don’t know how to fix the problem (“Vietnam: WTF?”), I am just noting its existence.
James Bond references notwithstanding, The Spy Who Loved Us is, in fact, about a spy who loved us, “us” in this case being America, and the spy being Pham Xuan An, Reuters and then Time correspondent and go-to journalist in Saigon, who, while loving us and filing articles for the American news complex, spent his nights planning the Tet Offensive and writing messages to the North Vietnamese in invisible ink. It’s a hell of a story. In fact, it took me longer than usual to read, because there was much to process. This book is not Vietnam 101, so I had to fill in some things on my own.
Given that the book is not 101, my hope of understanding the conflict remains unrealized, although I now have a better sense of how hard it might be to fully understand anything at all. What I learned about the actual events are as follows: the French were there, and felt very strongly that they should continue to be there, and espoused a (befuddling under the circumstances) enthusiasm for Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The Japanese, were there, Chinese were also there betimes, and sometimes Koreans. Vietnam told France to go away, but Americans were like, no, no, France stays (even though they apparently liked the Vietnamese when they were fighting the Japanese while France was collaborating furiously). Then the Americans, for no reason that I can understand, started coming over for long visits and someone called Lansdale decided there was to be a war. There was the North, which were the Communists, and the South, which were the non-Communists, except for the Vietcong, who were also Communists. The Americans were with the South, and did something involving Catholics and puppet government.
Thomas Bass provides lots of background, but mostly to explain the education and evolution of Pham Xuan An, who, showing remarkable fidelity during several decades that would seem rife with near-constant turncoating, was a devoted (and heavily decorated) Communist. Through various channels, An worked in Intelligence for the South Vietnamese, and then as basically the most important journalist in Vietnam. He seems to have been friends with literally everyone, but he was also a spy. I know from John Le Carré that spies exist in nebulae and shades of gray, often simultaneously holding two incompatible views, and An was apparently no exception. He seems to have been a moral spy, as moral as anyone could be during war. In spite of spying, An, purportedly provided genuine assistance and objective reportage for every major news presence in Vietnam.
The thrust of the Bass’s book as I read it is that An was a purveyor of truths, as a spy and a journalist. If journalism can be said to change the course of human events, An worked in two opposing ways to end the war, one directly, with a clear national objective, and the other obliquely, by reporting the ugly facts to the world outside (even if the ugly facts were subsequently rewritten by the Henry Luce/Time machine). An’s story has breathtaking implications on a variety of fronts, which is clearly why Bass invested years and quite considerable effort to write this book (considerable effort admirably concealed, I should say; The Spy Who Loved Us reads like a book, and not a dissertation, always a threat in nonfiction).
The Spy Who Loved Us was well-researched and well-told by someone who obviously cares quite a bit about the material. Reading it reminded me that I need to read more nonfiction, because history is full of incredible stories, and I know hardly any of them. For example, I did not know that the CIA has admitted to orchestrating news stories like, a lot. That a Quaker fellow self-immolated in front of McNamara. That spies were incrementally cut into pieces to reveal their information, and that sometimes they didn’t. That the man holding the gun in the Eddie Adams photo wasn’t such a bad guy to begin with. That journalism is a byzantine nest of loyalties and codes of behavior. That America lost the Vietnam War.
I will likely continue to ascribe certain cultural symbols of America’s Vietnam with a schmaltzy sacrosanctity (sleeveless jean jackets, empty helmets). I sound facetious, but I think for people who experience history second- or third- or fifth-hand, for whom events have slim or no personal relevance, it is easy to make objects and images the locus of a lukewarm national sentiment. This book reminded me that the Vietnam War took place in Vietnam, not a tropical corner of America, and that Vietnam was full of Vietnamese people, who suffered horribly and made complex series of decisions, and for many of whom the end of the war was a victory wrested from a hundred years of occupation. Throughout the The Spy Who Loved Us there are a number of people, American and Vietnamese, who describe An as the ultimate patriot, but it’s not as though the Vietnam War was simply Vietnam against the colonial and neo-colonial oppressors, it was between Vietnamese people as well. And they all died in spades, so it seems likely there are people out there for whom An’s life and work would be a great source of rancor. I don’t know. It’s a lot to think about. And it should be; war should always be a lot to think about.
As a fellow English boarding school veteran, I have always felt a certain kinship with Roald Dahl. His famous autobiography of his childhood, Boy, memorably captures the hierarchical structure of boarding school life, and although Dahl’s experiences were somewhat more brutal than my own (I was never forced to thaw a frozen lavatory seat with my own posterior) there is a definite sense of recognition in reading about his childhood days.
However, upon reading Love from Boy, a newly published collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother, I feel as though I may have to discard any claim to familiarity. As it turns out, there are even more differences between the boarding schools of the 1930s and those of the 2000s than were previously evident to me, and, if I learned anything about myself reading Love From Boy, it is that, had I been unfortunate enough to live in Dahl’s day, I probably would have ended up like “poor little Ford,” a briefly-mentioned fatality of one of the school’s many measles epidemics.
If the measles did not claim me, there would have been no shortage of other possibilities for a premature snuffing-out. Dahl, made of far sterner stuff, and arguably the most effortlessly macho of all 20th-century writers (including the posturing Ernest Hemingway), survived them all: being forced to fight a fire in his boarding house and then spending the night in the “black and charcoaly” building on “brown and nasty” beds; coming under fire when a student accidentally used live ammunition instead of blanks in a field-day training exercise; and experimenting with eating boiled lichen on a school trip to Newfoundland due to a lack of sufficient food.
Dahl detailed all of these horrors in regular letters to his beloved mother, and continued to write to her faithfully up until her death. Donald Sturrock, author of the acclaimed Dahl biography, Storyteller, collects a selection of over 600 of these surviving letters, dating from 1925 to 1965, in this new volume, entitled Love From Boy, after the phrase Dahl affectionately used to sign off his letters from school.
After he left boarding school, Dahl’s adventures continued and became even more outrageous. He moved to Africa, working in Tanzania and Kenya for Shell, where he contracted malaria, fought off a black mamba snake, and invented the game of strip darts. When war broke out in 1939, Dahl trained to become a pilot in Egypt, Iraq, and Greece. He shot down at least five enemy planes during the war before crash landing in the Libyan desert and being sent home to England to convalesce.
Following a chance encounter in a private London club, he was given a curious job offer and moved to Washington D.C. to work for the RAF. His military assignments there, as well as his own blossoming success as a freelance writer, soon launched him to the peak of American high society: he played tennis with Vice President Henry A. Wallace (winning 6-0, 6-0, 6-0), joined President Roosevelt for Thanksgiving dinner, went on a date with Ginger Rogers, attended a party with Charlie Chaplin, and worked on a major motion picture with Walt Disney. What is most extraordinary about this is the fact that it all took place decades before he found his ultimate success as a children’s writer, which would not come until 1961 with the publication of James and the Giant Peach.
These remarkable events (which must surely constitute one of the most interesting biographies of any writer) are all detailed in Dahl’s letters. Although one might feel a sense of unease reading or critically analyzing personal letters that were never meant for publication, Dahl’s may prove an exception since, as Sturrock argues, they were always written “primarily to entertain.” Therefore, although there might be a few personal details, such as inquiries about relatives, all in all the letters are highly accessible for those otherwise unfamiliar with Dahl’s life, and primarily document his extraordinary anecdotes in the ever-humorous style of a born entertainer.
My personal favorite of his many comical descriptions concerns the two elderly patients he shares a hospital room with after recovering from surgery, who fart “quite openly and unashamedly just as though it was like saying good morning.” For those (like myself) who are fond of these kinds of immature observations and jokes, there is plenty more to be found in Love from Boy, including Dahl’s description of a statue of a bison whose penis is painted bright red by vandals — “a very fine sight;” a picture by Dahl of “Hitler fucking himself,” annotated with an instruction to “note the smile of ecstasy on his face;” and a warning against the painting of toilet seats, lest some unfortunate “adhere to it,” followed by a conclusion that this would be “an excellent cure for constipation.” (Another difference between Dahl and myself: I would never dare to record any of these things in a letter to my mother, for fear she would be scandalized to the point of fainting, or worse.)
Although the letters themselves are fascinating and consistently funny, if the book has one flaw it may be that Sturrock tries too hard to force his theme of motherhood. It is clear that Dahl and his mother had a devoted relationship, but none of her letters survive, making the conversation in this collection entirely one-sided. Sturrock’s conclusion that Dahl’s mother “was an essential and invaluable foil” for the development of his writing is something we just have to take his word for. As a noted biographer of Dahl’s, it is likely that Sturrock is privy to more insights into her character than we are, so his conclusions may be valid — they are just not made immediately evident from what we have collected in Love from Boy.
Nonetheless, the book does a valiant job of collecting these letters for the first time and providing sound biographical context for them. For fans of Dahl’s writing there is also an additional layer of enjoyment, as one can seek out potential origins for elements later found in his fictional works. One obvious example is the cat, Mrs. Taubsypuss, whom Dahl and his fellow Shell workers took care of in Dar es Salaam — she later gives her name to the U.S. President’s cat in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Other more subtle details, such as Dahl’s descriptions of flying, may be the catalyst for scenes from his final book, The Minpins, which features miniature people flying on the backs of birds. Likewise, his eventual disillusionment with high society excesses (“Dinner of course was eaten off gold plate, but it tasted just the same”) may contain the seeds for the spoiled and greedy consumer-obsessed characters that populate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Reading Love from Boy, one gets the sense that it was inevitable that Dahl would become a great writer. Not only did he get plenty of practice, composing a huge number of letters, all in a style that served to sharpen his skill as a humorist; but he also lived more in the 10-year period from his leaving school to the end of the war than most of us do in a lifetime. He carried with him a rich memory of innumerable fascinating anecdotes and ideas — enough to fill countless books. Love from Boy provides a wonderful summary of this extraordinary life and an intimate insight into his development as a writer. It will prove a charming read for anyone who has ever enjoyed his work. Plus (did I mention?) it also has lots of rude bits, which is always a nice bonus.