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Vietnam Memoir

June 2024
1min read

In Pharaoh’s Army
Memories of the Lost War

by Tobias Wolff, Knopf, 256 pages, $23.00. CODE: RAN-25

At the end of the appallingly rigorous childhood he chronicled in This Boy’s Life , Tobias Wolff, with a sense of “relief and homecoming,” joined the Army. “It seemed to me when I got there that this was where I had been going all along, and where I might still redeem myself. All I needed was a war.

“Careful what you pray for.”

He got his war serving as a lieutenant in the Mekong Delta, and he takes us to it in a series of sharp sketches, perfectly observed and recounted in relaxed, utterly lucid prose. Just as his book is melancholy and hilarious by turns, so do the tales that make it up manage to seem at once surprising and inevitable—and thus nicely emblematic of a time that has yet to find an easy resting place in the national consciousness.

After the Tet offensive Wolff couldn’t get over the fact that the Vietcong had infiltrated the town where he was posted weeks in advance. “They were all around us, on the streets, in the restaurants, gathering for the great slaughter and tasting the pleasures of the town until it began.

“Certain scenes acquire piquancy in afterthought. Just before Tet a carnival established itself in a park along the river. Sergeant Benet and I stopped there one night and wandered among the games, the puppet shows, the jugglers and fire eaters. There was a dinky shooting gallery with a couple of antique .22s, and I lingered to try my hand. A stoop-shouldered man, tall for a Vietnamese, took the place to my right. A pair of younger fellows stood behind him, cheering him on. He shot well. So did I. We didn’t acknowledge that we were competing, but we were, definitely. Then I missed some and quit, for fear I’d miss more. ‘Good shooting,’ I said to him. He inclined his head and smiled. It might have been an innocent smile, but I think of it now as a complicated, terrible smile.”

In his luminous evocation of a complicated, terrible time, Tobias Wolff has given us a short book that is anything but a small one.

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