Red Flags

  • Juris Jurjevics
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 294 pp.

For the reviewer, this masterful novel of Vietnam stirred up memories all too real.

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

After years of neglect, the time for the Vietnam book has arrived. Following the publication last year of Karl Marlantes’s excellent Matterhorn, the stream of new fiction and histories has included Ken Babbs’s Who Shot the Water Buffalo? and Drury and Clavin’s Last Men Out. Marvin and Deborah Kalb’s Haunting Legacy, published in July, underlines the eerie Vietnam-Afghan parallel, and George Veith’s Black April, due in November, chronicles the fall of Vietnam. Jurjevics’s new novel, Red Flags, may prove to be the best of the bunch.

In the mid-1960s, Warrant Officer Erik Rider of the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division is sent to Phu Bon Province in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam to uncover and disrupt a Communist operation — growing illegal drugs to underwrite the cost of the war. Arriving at Cheo Reo, the provincial capital, with his sidekick, Sergeant Miser, Rider assumes the cover of a captain and joins the 40-man MACV Advisory Team 31 whose job is to provide matériel and advisory support to South Vietnamese army units.

Rider cultivates his roommate, John Ruchevsky, the local CIA operative, and connects with Vietnamese, Montagnard (the non-Viet mountain people) and Americans, military and civilian, to discover leads. Among the Americans is Roberta Towns, a physician who runs a clinic for the impoverished and abused Montagnards. After a hair-raising recon foray into enemy territory and assisting Doctor Roberta with a breech birth, Rider learns of a poppy field hidden in the mountains and sets out to destroy it. The terrifying climax comes when Rider, Ruchevsky and hand-picked Green Berets deploy clandestinely to the Ho Chi Minh trail to snatch a Communist courier carrying precious documents. Then comes a series of surprises, plot twists so deft that the reader thinks to himself, “Of course. It had to be. Why didn’t I see it coming?” And the kicker is withheld until the last page.

This is fiction craftsmanship at its most sophisticated. Jurjevics sneaks in the considerable bulk of requisite background information without once sounding didactic or distracting from the ongoing story. He uses ’60s slang and military jargon and intelligence argot transparently, creating a strong sense of time and place without tripping the reader. Everywhere the writing is clipped and economical and never slows the action. As in any good art, the technique is hidden; the artist makes it look easy. The reader doesn’t pause to admire the writing because the fictional dream, as master craftsman John Gardner termed it, is too riveting. To perceive Jurjevics’s craft, I had to yank myself out of the story and read as a writer, not as a reader.

The authenticity throughout is dead-on. Jurjevics makes the feel of the Vietnam highlands so true — even to the sensation of slime and insects on the skin — that I sweat when I read it. His characters, particularly the GIs and the CIA agent, are fiercely real — I’m sure I remember them — and his dialogue is pitch-perfect, in part because of his uncanny ear for soldiers’ patter. Most important, he nails the emotional feel of war in the highlands — the raw brutality, the brotherhood, the courage, and ultimately the disillusion.

Jurjevics broaches another element I’ve known about for a long time but have never seen mentioned in print: Vietnam addiction. So many of us went back, time after time, despite the carnage, the hurt, the death. Miser characterizes the smell of nuoc mam, the ubiquitous Vietnamese sauce made from rotten fish, as “essence of armpit.” The addictive condiment symbolizes Vietnam itself, an experience unlike any other; once Vietnam is under your skin, you develop a dependency.

The book tells the truth without flinching. Jurjevics gives us a man and woman who become lovers simply because they are there. He so graphically depicts the corruption of South Vietnamese officials, their exploitation of the Montagnards, and the unwillingness of the U.S. to interfere that we almost want to root for the North Vietnamese. And the Americans? “We kill for peace,” Rider explains. “It’s our idea of a good time.”

That Juris Jurjevics is the author of a book this compelling surprised me. He authored an earlier novel, The Trudeau Vector (2003), but he is mainly known for his work in the publishing industry. After working at Harper&Row, Avon Books, Dutton and Dial, he established and ran Soho Press for 20 years. Somewhere along the line, he mastered the art of fiction, and both his memory and research on Vietnam are next to flawless.

But only next to. Vietnamese words are occasionally misspelled and Vietnamese names garbled. An untrained U.S. Army private speaks the language, a necessary point for the plot but not credible — the only non-native Vietnamese speakers I knew were men and women who spent years in training and practice to master what is arguably the most difficult language for a Westerner. The mention of Chinese generals advising North Vietnamese regiments in South Vietnam is equally unlikely, given the millennium of enmity between the Vietnamese and Chinese. Finally, North Vietnamese resorting to growing opium poppies and marijuana for profit stretches plausibility.

To Jurjevics’ credit, none of the few unpersuasive details pulled me out of the story. The power of the narrative swept all before it. The greater truth that Jurjevics portrays stirred up memories I’d rather forget.

Red Flags, in sum, is a first-class Vietnam novel, on a par with Marlantes’ Matterhorn. The renaissance for the Vietnam novel has truly arrived.

Writer Tom Glenn served for many years in Vietnam, including time in the Central Highlands. Most of his prize-winning stories focus on Vietnam.

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