Aftermath: An Anthology of Post-Vietnam Fiction
edited by Donald Anderson, Henry Holt, 272 pages .
By the time Saigon fell, Americans were so sadly familiar with the war’s televised jungle patrols, booby traps, napalmed earth, and body bags that little seemed left to learn about it, especially from a novel or story. But twenty years after its end, the missing part of the war—the world inside the helmet—has its own literature: “Hooper’s heart leaped as the shock of the blast hit him. Then the sound went through him and beyond him and into the trees and the sky, echoing on in the distance like thunder. Afterwards there was silence. Hooper took a step forward, then sank to his knees and lowered his head to the wet grass. He spread his fingers through the grass beside his head. The rain fell around him with a soft, whispering sound. A bluejay squawked. Another bird called out, and then the trees grew loud with song.” So writes Tobias Wolff, a veteran of the U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam. Almost half of the fourteen writers included here are war veterans; the rest are prominent novelists—John Gardner, Barry Hannah, Louise Erdrich, and Maxine Kumin—proof that the Vietnam story has evolved over a generation into a respected genre.
One after another the contributors to Aftermath try to get around what Philip Caputo has called “a formless war against a formless enemy.” Thorn Jones’s celebrated 1993 story, “The Pugilist at Rest,” is told by an epileptic former Marine. “I opened a sandalwood box and took my various medals out of the large plastic bag. … I took a whiff of the box and smelled the smells of Saigon—the whores, the dope, the saffron, cloves, jasmine, and patchouli oil. I put the Thai sticks back, recalling the three-day hangover that particular batch of dope had given me more than twenty-three years before.” Jones’s story, like a few of the others by combat survivors, at first seems to have an exaggerated, almost stylized savagery. Then you read the note at the end and learn that all but one of the men in Jones’s unit died in the war.