Fifty years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense published A Pocket Guide to Vietnam, 1962, introducing American military personnel to the country in whose jungles they would be fighting. “Do learn and respect Vietnamese customs,” it advised, as well as “…you are in a land where dignity, restraint and politeness are highly regarded.”
Reissued by the Bodleian Libraries, the guide is available for purchase as new, versus finding a manhandled used version. An advertisement in the New York Review of Books brought the guide to my attention, but as I researched it online — looking for a “peek inside” so as to virtually browse its content — along the way, I discovered another book: Fragments by Jack Fuller.
Originally published in 1984, this novel is about a seasoned sergeant (Neumann) and an inexperienced soldier in his unit (Morgan, the narrator) who become friends as they live the tragedy and confusion of war. Fragments received wide acclaim from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Boston Sunday Globe. The kind that makes me sit up and pay attention. Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times (2/13/1984) wrote:
“Jack Fuller…has written an ambitious, tightly controlled novel that makes the usual semi-autobiographical account, filled with lots of closely observed details and colorful characters, seem flimsy and discursive in comparison.”
That’s quite a statement, when you consider the excellent Vietnam novels that came before this one, specifically, Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters (1977) and Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and Going After Cacciato (1978), a National Book Award winner. All are still in print and considered definitive novels of the war written by veterans.
The preview of Fragments on Google Books allows access to the entire introduction, which further convinced me to read the novel. The introduction is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler, who served in Vietnam 1969 – 1971. Here’s an excerpt:
“I found myself teaching the contemporary novel to my Master of Fine Arts fiction students. This was the fall of 1985, and that summer I’d spent a remarkable long August day sitting on my new screened porch, with the haze and the lush greenness of the subtropics all around, reading Jack Fuller’s novel. I hardly noticed the bombast of a thunderstorm come and go and then the sunlight return and blaze on and finally fade. I was enthralled with this book, and though the real setting all around me was much like the South Vietnam that he and I separately shared, the world of Fragments was even more intensely realized.”
Jack Fuller was drafted into the United States Army and served in Vietnam between 1969 and 1970 as a correspondent for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a veteran newspaperman who spent the majority of his career at the Chicago Tribune in the roles of reporter, editor and publisher. In 1997, he became president of the Tribune Publishing Company, retiring in 2004. His personal papers are now kept at The Newberry Library Special Collections, where you can read his full biography.