Thursday, May 19, 2016

Finding My Novel: Jack Fuller, the Vietnam War, and the Fragments of a Book



My problem as a novelist had never been writer’s block. Mine had been finding a story worth the weight of a novel. When I got drafted and sent to Vietnam, solving my literary problem was nowhere near the top of my mind. In fact the problem did not even surface again until I was long out of the Army.

When I got to Vietnam, I somehow found my way to the odd institution that was then Pacific Stars and Stripes. Virtually all of Stripes’ journalists had had some professional experience before ending up there. They were not your normal group of Pfcs and Spec. 4s. To put it gently, they were not a spit-and-polish military outfit.


Our offices were in a ramshackle French colonial building, not far from the gates of Tan Son Nhut airbase but very distant from military ways. This was made clear to me within days of my arrival: A bunch of us had gathered in one of the rooms. With us were some off-duty doctors from the field hospital down the road and a number of USO women. We were all enjoying a drink and conversation. It was well past curfew and I am sure we were violating at least a half-pound of military regulations. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and there was the sergeant major (the highest-ranking enlisted man at Stars and Stripes in Vietnam). I thought we were done for. But the sergeant major actually seemed embarrassed and said, “I don’t have anything important. It can wait ’til tomorrow.” And he left.

This sense of being an island of civilian life in the middle of the military extended to the professional work of the Bureau. Though it was not easy getting controversial stories into the paper, the success rate was remarkably high. As correspondents we behaved like our civilian colleagues: We did not carry weapons in the field. We wore civilian clothes (until a martinet in Tokyo ordered us to wear army fatigues). We hitchhiked by airplane, helicopter, jeeps, sampans, busses, and any other vehicle we could find heading our way (or that we could persuade to go that way). We went where the news took us. Once in the field we were, as we said in those days, “under our own command.” This allowed me free reign, exposing me to the geography of the country: from the rocky, dangerous northernmost parts near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) to the rugged mountains of the central highlands, and from the jungles of the lowlands that surround Saigon to the seemingly endless rice paddies of the Mekong Delta. It also exposed me to combat at various levels—from small-unit engagements that lasted only minutes to a huge, division-sized battle south of Dak To in the central highlands, where North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns firing from the ridgelines were bringing down helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

What I did not see was the war I expected. Yes, there were men who had been hardened beyond anyone I had known. But for the most part the soldiers were just like people I grew up with. I recognized them. There was an array of officers ranging from the petty and bureaucratic to the fierce. The latter group included some of the most admirable people I had encountered in my life: strong, competent, carefully guarding the life of every man under their command. They were aggressive when they needed to be and humane when the time for aggression passed. These were men who I would be willing to trust with my life, and in fact did.


My fellow enlisted men, known proudly as grunts, looked like pirates as they stormed off helicopters in a combat assault. Their floppy boonie hats may have been festooned with anti-war symbols and slogans, but when the shooting started there was no ambiguity. The grunts were there to protect their brothers. It was straightforward.

Much more difficult were the decisions of what to do when confronting brutal realities on the ground: A platoon approaches a small village. Children are playing on the outskirts. Suddenly automatic weapons begin raking the American position, killing and wounding several men, pinning others down. The enemy pulls back into protective positions in the village. It is a standoff and grunts are being picked off one by one. There is no way out of this but to bring heavy-weapons fire in on the village—artillery, high-explosive bombs, napalm.

The right answer for the American commander is a terrible one. But he takes it. The village is quickly flattened, leaving behind the dead and wounded, children and women whom the grunts had seen just before the fighting broke out. Eventually soldiers get hardened—increasingly ready for such situations. That readiness itself leaves a wound.

An example I will never put behind me occurred during the invasion of Cambodia. I went in with a platoon of grunts sent to recon a position where the North Vietnamese had destroyed a bridge, which could have slowed down the advance of a large American armor unit. The Americans expected an ambush. The grunts attacked in a classic combat assault—infantry inserted by helicopters, combat riding on a wave of noise, commotion, confusion, and chaos. We did not know where the incoming fire originated, or even how much of it there was.

The grunts and I all ran to find any small place to get cover. I flopped down behind a small berm. Right next to me came a grunt laden with bandoliers of machine gun bullets over his shoulders, a mustache that seemed as long as Pancho Villa’s. This was not a man new to the firefights. When the incoming fire seemed to be subsiding, he brought his face up out of the dirt, looked at the vibrant forest around us—neatly kept thatched hooches on stilts, small gardens planted around them—and said in genuine awe at the splendor of the surroundings, “Boy, this is a beautiful place! We’re really going to fuck it up.”

Destruction was not the objective of these men. Getting everyone home safely was. The closeness that bound together the small grunt units fighting in the field also bound those of us at Stars and Stripes scattered across the countryside. The bond was so strong that I was not sure I wanted to break it by going home.

I was more fortunate than many returning veterans. I had a place in law school waiting for me. I thought I knew what to expect because I already had completed a semester before being drafted. But like most other soldiers coming home, I found the experience isolating. It was as if I had arrived back at the ivy-covered walls from some other universe.

The questions people asked me were often insulting. “Why the hell did you go?” It was a reasonable question. I was one of only four men from my entering law school class who was drafted and actually went. “Did you have to kill anybody?”

And yet I had flung away my army field jacket to celebrate my return to civilian life, only to find myself surrounded by students who were all wearing them. This costume of war had obviously become the fashion of those who stayed home.

Perhaps a year passed. I did not have a story in mind, just a faint, restless, buzzing in my head, something that wanted out. Then one night, while I was studying in an underground library, all of a sudden the story came to me. Every movement of every soldier in it was clear in my mind. The geography of the village was so sharp that somewhere in my papers there is still the map I drew that night, which did not change over the years I wrote and rewrote and rewrote the novel.

When I started writing that night, I had no idea who these men were, moving through the village. I did not know where they came from, what else they had done in the Army, anything about them. And so I started with whatever I could with each of them, and worked from there.

Many things remained unclear to me even as I worked deep in the story. But the importance of this story itself never failed me. It was at least a decade before I saw the book in print. It was actually my second book to be published. But it was the one that I would never let go.

The picture of those grunts in the village is still as vivid to me as it was that night, underground, in the library, reflected from my experiences at Stars and Stripes.


*     *     *

Born in Chicago, in 1946, to a newspaperman father and a mother whose father had gone to prison during the Great Depression charged with fraud after the failure of his small-town bank, Jack Fuller graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He worked for Chicago’s City New Bureau, the Chicago Daily News, and Pacific Stars and Stripes, before completing Yale Law School, and thereafter for a time, worked at The Washington Post. During the administration of President Gerald Ford, Fuller worked as a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi, disentangling responsibilities and relationships between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency that had been aggravated by the Watergate affair. In 1976, he joined the Chicago Tribune, rising steadily to become editorial page editor, editor, publisher, and, eventually, the executive who negotiated Tribune Company’s acquisition of Times-Mirror Co., which published the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Hartford Courant. Along the way he won a Pulitzer Prize, published two books on journalism and edited Restoring Justice, a volume of Edward Levi’s speeches as Attorney General. Today he is a trustee of the University of Chicago and a member of the board of directors of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. From early on in his career, Fuller has also been a novelist. Convergence appeared in 1982; Fragments, about two veterans whose friendship is shattered by their service in Vietnam, in 1984; Mass, an intergenerational story of the origins of the Cold War (and prequel of sorts to a trilogy he had begun) in 1985; Our Fathers’ Shadows, a meditation on marriage and adoption, in 1987; The Best of Jackson Payne, an ingenious account of the civil rights revolution seen through the prism of an African-American jazz musician and his white biographer, in 2000; and Abbeville, a re-telling of the experiences of his maternal grandfather, and various familial consequences cascading down through the years, seemingly all the way to 2008, the year in which the book appeared. His newest novel is One From Without.
     (Excerpted from A Parallax View by David Warsh)


One from Without
by Jack Fuller
(Unbridled Books)

A major breach in the database of a Chicago financial firm, Day and Domes, occurring while the company is embroiled in critical negotiations to acquire a Silicon Valley firm, has dire consequences in this thrilling topical mystery from Fuller (Abbeville). When the breach is discovered, the members of Day and Domes’s acquisition team set out to determine the identity of the hackers and devise a damage control plan. Top executives—including ruthless CEO Brian Brady Joyce, who supports his musician wife in lavish fashion, and CFO Tom Rosten, a lonely former CIA agent who’s smarting from mistakes he made in the past—must choose whether to cover up or announce the breach and perhaps arrive at a consensus on where to pin responsibility. What follows is an eye-opening portrayal of the fascinating lives and personalities of the key players and of the machinations corporate personnel employ to protect themselves and ensure the completion of the pending acquisition. The sophisticated depictions of human greed and frailty lead to a surprising, yet believable, ending.
     (Publishers Weekly)


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