Warbooks

I took several warbooks to my seaside vacation last month and managed to read three. I’ve never read that genre before and I wanted to get acquainted with it in the name of research for one of my writing projects. My picks were essentially random, from the several dozen old pocket books I inherited from my father and largely ignored because they’re mostly stuff I’m not interested in – books about the Second World War and Vietnam, books about mafia, books about Japan and books based on a variety of successful movies*. Anyway, the three books I read are, in the order I read them: GOING AFTER CACCIATO by Tim O’Brien, AN AFFAIR OF MEN by Errol Brathwaite and AND THEN WE HEARD THE THUNDER by John Oliver Killens. And the extraordinary thing is, not one of them is really a warbook.

Going After Cacciato

GOING AFTER CACCIATO is the weirdest book I’ve read in a long time. Near the end of the Vietnam War, an American soldier named Cacciato deserts and sets off for Paris on foot. His commanding officer and the rest of his squad go after him, but after they cross the border in pursuit, they too become deserters. The story is told from a loose third person point of view of Paul Berlin, one of the pursuers, who quickly turns out to be the most unreliable narrator imaginable. He makes things up all the time, to the point where every third or fourth chapter is staged at an imaginary Observation Post where he watches his buddies sleep and thinks and sometimes swims in the sea and nothing ever really happens. He also makes things up as a part of the “regular” narrative, but these are mostly straightforward to tell apart from the “truth”.

And then he hallucinates, for reasons that have remained unclear to me. Smoking pot is mentioned in passing several times, but that shouldn’t cause hallucinations. Perhaps he’s just insane, although he mostly seems equally or more rational as the rest of the squad. Hallucinations are not straightforward to tell apart. Some, that seemed obvious, turned out to be debatable later, when certain borderline fantastic settings and characters kept appearing chapter after chapter, treated no differently than what I perceived as “real”, and had an actual impact on what I perceived as the story. Other times, perfectly real-looking passages turned out to have never happened. This was disconcerting and disruptive. It interfered with my ability and indeed the wish to bond with the characters and take the story seriously. Worst of all was the ending, which was executed in “reality” down to the last couple of sentences, and then abruptly became chaotic and mixed-up and planted the seed of suspicion that the finale itself, where the fates of the two main characters – Paul Berlin and the elusive Cacciato – is finally decided, is just another hallucination.

Fuck that.

An Affair of Men

AN AFFAIR OF MEN is a different matter altogether. It’s set in World War II, on a Polynesian island, where the Japanese Captain Itoh, in pursuit of Allied airmen who have been shot down, faces an extraordinary opponent: Sedu, a highly educated and profoundly pious headman of a native village, who offers every courtesy, but refuses to cooperate regardless of the consequences. Captain Itoh and Sedu engage in a battle of wills, each trying to convert the other to his own world-view. But their views and cultural backgrounds are so different that understanding is impossible.

The story is told mostly from Captain Itoh’s point of view, with a few brief excursions to Sedu’s. I was captured by Itoh’s voice. It’s incredibly persuasive in its skewed logic. Itoh’s interpretations are desperately wrong, yet methodical and internally consistent and it is not at all hard to believe that he could misconstrue things the way he does as his dignity and sanity take hit after hit. An enjoyable read and a valuable lesson in writing-craft.

And Then We Heard The Thunder

This one’s by far the longest and heaviest of the three. Looking at the cover and the blurb and reading the first few chapters, I thought it would be a warbook for sure. But nope. It’s about the racial discrimination of African-Americans in the US army during World War II. The main character is Solly Sounders, an intelligent, well-spoken and highly educated black man who enters service full of ambition, optimism, and with a deep pool of faith in the justice of the war for democracy. His experiences in the army transform him completely, to the point where he no longer cares for advancing in the ranks, or about the war, or about the alleged democracy that doesn’t include him and his people.

It was difficult to read. I didn’t particularly like Solly or any of the other characters. I skimmed through most of the “team-building” scenes where the author indulges in relaying page after page of witty conversation between Solly and his buddies that only expose new information at the beginning of the book and then get stale and repetitive. I didn’t particularly like the writing itself either. Strange choices in sentence composition perhaps enhanced the “voice” but for me it was at the cost of being jarring. And the endless euphemisms got on my nerves, though I suppose it couldn’t have been done differently at the time this was published. Despite all of this, I rode the emotional roller-coaster with Solly from cover to cover and it was an experience to remember.


Even though all these books are about soldiers, and indirectly about one war or another, they’re not what I imagined warbooks to be. What I imagined was action, fighting, patriotism, trudging over rough terrain, fear, adrenaline, duty, camaraderie, pain, death, loss, courage. Not… this fancy, genre-queer stuff.

Perhaps my expectations were off. I still have a couple dozen books with war-like titles and covers to try out, but at this point I’d much rather take some recommendations then going about it blindly. If you happen to have any, please let me know!


* This is by no means a comprehensive list of genres my father was interested in. What I have at hand is only a tiny portion of his wast collection of pocket books, the majority of which ended up with my sister. This seemed fair at the time, as I got to take away the antiquated family piano-forte. Talk about choice and consequence…

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