IN A PERVERSE SORT OF WAY, I've always regretted missing Vietnam. Even though I did everything I could — including marriage, graduate school, and the Peace Corps — to avoid the draft, the big Nam was, after all, the formative experience of my generation. I've read most of the novels, waiting for the really heavy one to come along and tell me what I missed. Tim O'Brien's peculiar Going After Cacciato probably came the closest, but still, that book just didn't make it for me. And most of the rest chased that predictable, high-strung arc from starry-eyed recruit to stone-bitter vet, wearing a hapless humanitarianism on their sleeve.
One day in 1988 in a London bookstore, I stumbled upon Kent Anderson's Sympathy for the Devil. I bought it because an acknowledgment inside mentioned Jim Crumley, a Montana hardboiled novelist I like, but little did I expect the fiendish trap waiting for me between the covers. When I dipped into the book on the tube home, I was suddenly stuck fast in a chilling, no-pest-strip of horror that hasn't let me go to this day. When I finish books, I date them on the last page, out of some inexplicably daffy anality, and over the next decade this page acquired eight separate dates.
The novel's central character, Sgt. Hanson, reads Yeats on his long-range patrols, from a paperback molded to the shape of his leg. But he is no ineffectual idealist, yearning to be back "in the world"; in fact, halfway through his story, he does his best to come home. When he gets there he can only loop off into inarticulate rages against the civilians who remain innocent of his brittle world:
"Getting cut doesn't even hurt if the knife is sharp enough," Hanson said, and he laid open a three-inch gash on the back of his own forearm, snapped the knife closed, and slipped it into his pocket. Blood seeped down the arm and in between the webbing of his fingers. He looked at the blood collecting on his fingertips and dripping on the floor.
Did you ever think about the Devil — about what a hard job he's got? He does all the work and God just sits around and takes all the credit for everything. The Devil's got to jump around and hiss and sneer, 'cause that's the job he got stuck with. Go out there every day and deliver the pain. Deliver the pain for that slimy asshole God. And everybody hates him for it.
Hanson is a Green Beret who's fallen hard for the God of War, and he and his pals — like any 18-year-olds given heavy weapons — are helplessly in love with the heady power of it all: "Hanson inhaled and smelt gunpowder and sweet blood. He could taste it on the backs of his eyeballs. He felt as if he had aligned himself with the fault lines beneath the earth. He could point his finger and tracers would appear. His gestures set off explosions."
War, like sin, has a terrible dark attraction. Hanson's pals Quinn and Silver are truly brutal, trained to be marauders in a land they don't even...read more