From Publishers Weekly
The past--harrowing, traumatic, mesmerizing--encroaches on the present again and again in this lean, mean, fighting first collection of seven stories, all of which are set during or in the long shadow of the Vietnam War. Barnes, who served in the elite U.S. Army Special Forces, writes of a character, "The more he resists memories, the more they intrude." In contrast to Tim O'Brien or Larry Heinemann, whose work paved the way for this book, Barnes waited a long time before writing about 'Nam: he has been a deputy sheriff, a PI, a casino dealer and only recently a writer grappling with the discombobulation of combat. The result is that the fighting is mostly secondary in his stories, while the relationships between the men who served take central focus. In the collection's finest piece, the harrowing novella "Tunnel Rat," talk in the jungle invariably centers on home. Fine lyric descriptions of the landscape's beauty ("diaphanous thermals shimmered where the sun bore down on the emerald paddies in the lowlands") make the carnage somehow unreal; yet "they measured days by casualties." A father in "A Return" grasps vainly for memories of his son, an MIA for 15 years, whose body is belatedly coming home. Resignedly, he understands that "the world ends one life at a time. Who decides when a boy's world ends?" And a vet in "Plateau Lands," on the eve of being reunited with his handicapped 'Nam buddy, winner of a Silver Star, and now running for Congress, learns the truth: "Mel didn't save me. It was luck." Not for the first time (as we know from Civil War accounts), a white flag is raised in the midst of combat and a pick-up game of baseball ensues between the Delta Company Yankees and the North Vietnamese Giants ("A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley"). Though Barnes's work does not finally outshine previous Vietnam-based fiction, his writing is clean-cut and vibrant, and his stories ring true.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Barnes' stories have a strong sense of a dark, dreamlike state where the strange and bizarre go head to head with the very real terror of war. In "Stonehands and the Tigress," a tiger cub becomes a pet of one of the men. His confrontation with the mother could be all in his head, or it could be real. "He held the rifle but had no intention of shooting. Her body twitched. She flicked her tail once again and an instant later disappeared into the fog. What would he tell his squad? Who would believe it?" A few seconds later Stonehands must call in a mortar round as he is suddenly surrounded by Vietnamese soldiers. In "The Cat in the Cage," an American POW is paraded from village to village in a cage. The edge between dream, nightmare, and raw reality is very thin in most of these stories. Just when you thought you had heard the last of the Vietnam War, another voice demands to be heard. Marlene Chamberlain