I went to the National Book Awards ceremony in New York last month for a very simple reason. I wanted to tell James McBride, in person, what I’m going to tell you now: his novel, The Good Lord Bird, one of five finalists for the fiction award, is the most astonishing book I read all year. It’s one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.
“Why, thank you very much,” McBride said from under the brim of his porkpie hat when I bumped into him at the pre-awards cocktail party and told him how I felt about his book. When I wished him luck at the awards ceremony later in the evening and told him I was pulling for him to win, he waved his arm at the cavernous banquet room and said, “At this point it doesn’t really matter. It’s all good.”
I didn’t expect McBride to win the National Book Award that night because he was up against bigger names — Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Rachel Kushner — and I long ago stopped believing that artistic awards are based solely on artistic merit. McBride obviously didn’t expect to win, either, because when his name was called out as the winner for fiction, he stepped to the podium without a prepared speech, visibly surprised. “I didn’t think I would win today,” he told the crowd of 700. Then, echoing what he had said to me earlier at the cocktail party, he added, “If any of the others writers had won I wouldn’t feel bad because they’re all fine writers. But it sure is nice to win.”
And it sure is nice to see such a deserving winner. The Good Lord Bird is narrated by Henry Shackleford, a young slave in the Kansas territory who is freed by the abolitionist John Brown, then, passing as a girl, follows Brown on his various military and political campaigns, all the way to the disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, a major catalyst for the Civil War. (The book’s title refers to the red-headed woodpecker, a bird whose feathers serve as charms, a bird so beautiful that when people see one, they cry, “Good Lord.”) Henry, known as Henrietta or “Onion” to Brown and his ragtag army, narrates the story in a frontier vernacular that is by turns hilarious, bawdy, and wise. Her sharpest insights are on race and slavery, and they’re as valid today as they were a century and a half ago. No one, black or white, slave or free, gets a free ride from Henrietta Shackleford, including Henrietta Shackleford. Here, for instance, are her thoughts on the lies black people tell themselves: “Fact is, I never knowed a Negro from that day to this but who couldn’t lie to themselves about their own evil while pointing out the white man’s wrong, and I weren’t no exception.” And here’s Henrietta on what it means to be black: “Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse.”
The novel has obvious antecedents in the works of Twain and Cervantes, James Baldwin and William Styron. But its framing device — even its opening lines — owe a debt to another tall tale insinuated from American history, Thomas Berger’s indelible epic of the Indian wars, Little Big Man. That novel purports to be the tape-recorded reminiscences of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, a white man who was snatched by Cheyenne Indians as a boy and grew up straddling the racial divide, living with both Indians and whites, finally fighting alongside Gen. George Armstrong Custer and becoming the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The Good Lord Bird purports to be the reminiscences of 111-year-old Henry Shackleford, written down by a preacher in 1942, then locked away and finally salvaged from a church fire in 1966. Instead of straddling the racial divide, Henry crosses other lines — between male and female, freeman and slave, country rube and city slicker — and he winds up in the heat of battle alongside John Brown, becoming the only black survivor of the raid on Harpers Ferry.
Here’s the opening of The Good Lord Bird: “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” And here’s the opening of Little Big Man: “I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.” Even the climactic battle scenes share a chapter title: McBride’s is “Last Stand”; Berger’s is “The Last Stand.” (In a follow-up e-mail, McBride acknowledged Berger’s influence, adding that he also drew on the writings of Leon Litwack and Daryl Cumber Dance.)
I don’t buy books or movie tickets based on awards, and I’m proud to be able to say that I bought my copy of The Good Lord Bird before it was nominated for the National Book Award and I finished reading it before the awards ceremony. That’s not to say I’m opposed to book awards. As they long as they connect readers with writers — and sell books — I’m all for them. McBride’s publisher, Riverhead Books, announced that it was printing an additional 45,000 copies of The Good Lord Bird as soon as the award was announced, bringing the number in print to more than 82,000. I hope they sell like Krispy Kremes. James McBride is an important and thrilling writer, and he deserves to be widely read.
None of the above is to denigrate the other four fiction finalists for this year’s National Book Award. As McBride put it, they are all fine writers. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, in particular, struck me as a book that announced the arrival of a major talent. The novel, which roams from the Bonneville salt flats to the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s to the political barricades in Italy, was a stirring expansion of the promise Kushner showed in her 2008 debut, Telex From Cuba, which was also a National Book Award finalist. Both novels exhibit Kushner’s outsized gifts: her ambition, her narrative dexterity, her ability to paint complex characters and put them in motion in vividly imagined historical settings. Whether she’s writing about the First World War, pre-revolutionary Cuba, or the 1970s art scene, Kushner succeeds because she understands how to handle her prodigious historical research. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true does not mean it has a place.”
There were other delights this year. One of the chiefest, because it was so personal, was the publication of Keystone Corruption: A Pennsylvania Insider’s View of a State Gone Wrong, a sweeping history of the chicanery that has been festering under the state capitol’s green dome in Harrisburg, Pa., for more than a century. It was written by a veteran shoe-leather reporter named Brad Bumsted, who happens to be the man who took me under his wing and taught me the reporter’s craft at the daily newspaper in nearby Chambersburg, Pa., back in the 1970s. As I wrote in my essay about Keystone Corruption, “Brad is an important reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good journalism still matters, it still happens, and it is still built on what it was originally built on — not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed, and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better.”
Though it was published late last year, I’ve got to mention a gem of a book that should burnish the reputation of a writer who has written five novels that are classics, even though too few people have read them. Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings, is a great teeming smorgasbord of Portis’s journalism, travel writing, short stories, drama and memoir. The book also includes a rare interview with Portis and tributes from admirers, including Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, and Donna Tartt. In addition to its abundant wit and wisdom, this book is virtually a connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in newspaper city rooms in Tennessee, Arkansas and New York. I hope it will attract new readers to Portis’s novels, Norwood, True Grit, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos.
Another writer who deserves a wider audience is Nick Turse, who produced a magisterial work of history this year called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Turse argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation ,and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration — not a one-off atrocity called My Lai — but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. This book’s lessons, like James McBride’s insights on race, are as valid today as they were when America was blundering its way to a shameful military disaster four decades ago.
A pleasant surprise landed in my mailbox in April — a handsome new paperback edition of They Don’t Dance Much, the only novel James Ross published in his lifetime, now widely regarded as the progenitor of “country noir.” This new edition, published by Mysterious Press, includes a foreword by Daniel Woodrell, a Ross acolyte who says he first read the novel in the 1970s because George V. Higgins “vouched for it as both literature and a good time.” A funny, bloody, world-wise tale of violent doings at a North Carolina roadhouse during the Depression, the book was published in 1940 to high praise from Flannery O’Connor, among others, but it sold poorly and soon disappeared. A new edition appeared in the 1970s, attracting a new generation of fans, including Woodrell. And now, another three and a half decades after the second edition, we have a third. As Woodrell writes, “They Don’t Dance Much, a novel that was often declared dead but has never been successfully buried, offers a persuasive portrait of a rough-and-ready America as seen from below, a literary marvel that is once again on its feet and wending its way toward the light.”
Last but far from least, this year the Irish writer Kevin Barry followed up his blistering novel, City of Bohane, with an equally strong collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island. The man uses the English language like a musical instrument. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: You must read Kevin Barry.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Do we need another book about Vietnam? We already have some 30,000 non-fiction books about America’s most horrific foreign misadventure, along with countless novels, histories, biographies, memoirs and movies. So the question must be asked: Do we really need more?
The short answer is: Yes, we will always need to know more about the Vietnam War and other defining moments in our national narrative. It’s an open-ended story that began with the arrival of the first Europeans and their brutal subjugation of the native populace, then continued on through the founding of the Republic, slavery, westward expansion, industrialization, wars (both foreign and domestic, victorious and not), the rise to the pinnacle of world power and, now, the inexorable decline of the American empire. We will always need fresh voices giving us fresh takes on this spectacular, ugly, rich, and ever-evolving story.
So we should welcome Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, a new work of history that argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration – not a one-off atrocity called My Lai – but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. These are devastating charges, and they demand answers because Turse has framed his case with deeply researched, relentless authority.
This book’s birth was an accident. Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, was researching post-traumatic stress disorder in 2001 when he made a serendipitous discovery. One day at the National Archives, a friendly staffer posed a question: Could witnessing war crimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder? Turse had never considered the possibility, but the archivist led him to the yellowing records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, a secret task force that had been formed after the widely reported massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968.
The Working Group’s forgotten records were a gold mine, and Turse dug right in. The first thing he learned as he pored through the files was that the task force was not put together to prevent future war crimes; its mission was to make sure that the military was never again caught off-guard by a war crimes scandal. The distinction is important for what it says about the Machiavellian workings of the American war machine. Given those workings, it’s no surprise that hundreds of court-martial records were destroyed or went missing. Turse also learned that the military had succeeded in selling the lie that My Lai was an exception. As his research revealed, My Lai was “an operation, not an aberration,” part of a pattern that contributed to a shocking statistic. During the years of America’s involvement in Vietnam, by the most conservative estimates, more than 3 million people died violent deaths; 2 million of them were Vietnamese civilians.
As Turse writes, “The War Crimes Working Group files alone demonstrated that atrocities were committed by members of every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed without the rest of its division – that is, every major army unit in Vietnam.”
Once he got through the Working Group files, Turse didn’t stop. He scoured other files about war crimes investigations in the National Archives, he interviewed generals and top civilian officials, former war crimes investigators, veterans who had witnessed or committed atrocities. He read widely and deeply. He made several trips to Vietnam to interview survivors of the war.
Like all good histories, the resulting book reads like a detective story, especially if you follow the dense endnotes as you move through the text. The evidence leads Turse to this damning but inescapable conclusion:
The hundreds of reports that I gathered and the hundreds of witnesses that I interviewed in the United States and Southeast Asia made it clear that killings of civilians – whether cold-blooded slaughter like the massacre at My Lai or the routinely indifferent, wanton bloodshed like the lime gatherers’ ambush at Binh Long – were widespread, routine, and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.
Yet only a handful of men were brought to trial or punished for a staggering number of pointless civilian deaths.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was eager to read Turse’s book because I share his fascination with the Vietnam War, and with the almost unfathomable missteps that turned it into the horror it became. My second novel, All Souls’ Day, is built around the C.I.A.-backed coup that led to the assassination of South Vietnam’s President, Ngo Dinh Diem, on Nov. 2, 1963, a day known to Diem and his fellow Catholics as All Souls’ Day, or the Day of the Dead. My reading of history told me that this was a pivotal moment, a chance for America to cut its losses and extricate itself from a deepening quagmire. Three weeks after Diem’s assassination, though, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas and hawkish Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President. Soon the serious killing would begin. The opportunity for withdrawal was lost.
Thirty-three years later, shortly after I’d sold the manuscript and almost a year before All Souls’ Day was published, my fictional enterprise received validation from a most unlikely source. Robert S. McNamara, defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and a prime architect of our Vietnam fiasco, published his long-awaited memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. One sentence in McNamara’s book jumped out at me. It was not his maddeningly tepid apology – “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” It was this: “I believe we could and should have withdrawn from South Vietnam either in late 1963 amid the turmoil following Diem’s assassination or in late 1964 or early 1965 in the face of increasing political and military weakness.”
That single sentence gave me the gratifying feeling that my novel had hit on an important but little-noted truth. It was the sort of validation all novelists dream of, but few get to taste. Robert S. McNamara, of all people, had made me proud.
There is no doubt in my mind that Kill Anything That Moves belongs on the very highest shelf of books on the Vietnam War – up there with the non-fiction of Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Jonathan Schell, and Frances FitzGerald, the memoirs of Michael Herr and Philip Caputo, the fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason, Robert Stone, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tim O’Brien, Ward Just, and, of course, Graham Greene.
It’s worth noting that in her magisterial history, Fire In the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, FitzGerald made only passing mention of war crimes. “The (Johnson) administration, if it were to pursue its objectives, had very little choice but the strategy of attrition,” she wrote. “And because of the very nature of the war, that strategy meant the attrition not only of enemy troops and military supplies but all Vietnamese. No one in the American government planned a policy of genocide. The American military commanders would have been shocked or angered by such a charge, but in fact their policy had no other military logic, and their course of action was indistinguishable from it.”
(Alas, FitzGerald’s book did not appear until 1972, too late for its contextual lessons to be of any use to Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Robert S. McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, Gen. William Westmoreland, Richard Nixon or any of the hundreds of others who shaped America’s war policy from inside a bubble of nearly immaculate ignorance about the Vietnamese people and their history. FitzGerald has high praise for Turse’s book, calling it “an important piece of history.” So does Seymour Hersh, who calls it a “painful and important book.”)
Philip Caputo was with the first marines to land in Vietnam in 1965, and a decade later, as a war correspondent, he was among the last people evacuated from Saigon as the victorious communists closed in on the panicked city. Caputo wound up facing a court-martial when marines under his command miscarried orders and deliberately shot two suspects. Caputo was acquitted and eventually received an honorable discharge. In his memoir, A Rumor of War, here’s how he described America’s military strategy:
General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition also had an important effect on our behavior. Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill communists and as many of them as possible. Stack ’em like cordwood. Victory was a high body-count, defeat a low kill-ratio, war a matter of arithmetic. The pressure on unit commanders to produce enemy corpses was intense, and they in turn communicated it to their troops. This led to such practices as counting civilians as Viet Cong. ‘If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC,’ was our rule of thumb in the bush. It is not surprising, therefore, that some men acquired a contempt for human life and predilection for taking it.
This contempt for the lives of the Vietnamese, as Turse points out, led American soldiers to abide by what was widely known as the Mere-Gook Rule, or MGR. “This,” Turse writes, “held that all Vietnamese – northern and southern, adults and children, armed enemy and innocent civilian – were little more than animals, who could be killed or abused at will.”
Before reading this book, I had believed that the racial epithet “gook” was coined by American soldiers in Vietnam. Turse, in one of many deft touches, cured me of this illusion. He writes that the word originated during the campaign in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, when American soldiers disparaged the natives as “goo-goos” and proceeded to slaughter 600 unarmed Moros. Mark Twain called those soldiers “our uniformed assassins,” and he dubbed their proto-My Lai “a long and happy picnic.” In time “goo-goo” morphed to “gook,” and the results became far more deadly.
In the title essay of his collection called The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders dissected America’s tendency to rush into wars in places it knows little about. He was talking about our current, never-ending war in Iraq, but his words are almost eerily applicable to Vietnam:
A culture capable of imagining complexity is a humble culture. It acts, when it has to act, as late in the game as possible, and as cautiously, because it knows its own girth and the tight confines of the china shop it’s blundering into. And it knows that no matter how well-prepared it is – no matter how ruthlessly it has held its projections up to intelligent scrutiny – the place it is headed for is going to be very different from the place it imagined. The shortfall between the imagined and the real, multiplied by the violence of one’s intent, equals the evil one will do.
Paul Fussell put it more succinctly: “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.”
As Turse has made clear, the Vietnam War was much worse than expected – partly because of the astonishing resolve of America’s enemies, but mainly because of the ignorance and the brute ruthlessness that beat in the heart of America’s war machine. Kill Anything That Moves should be required reading in every school, military academy and governmental office in the land. Not that it will stop us from blundering into the next war. Again, George Saunders summed it up, in an essay called “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra.” He was writing about Slaughterhouse Five, but he could have been writing about Kill Anything That Moves:
No, war will not be stopped. But it is a comfort, in the midst of a war, to read an antiwar book this good, and be reminded that just because something keeps happening, doesn’t mean we get to stop regretting it. Massacres are bad, the death of innocents is bad, hate is bad, and there’s something cleansing about hearing it said so purely.
So this is why we’re still reading about Vietnam: because the truth, purely told by writers as gifted as Nick Turse, is the only thing that has the power to cleanse us.