Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mag Watch: Daniel Woodrell's "Oceanside" in Narrative

Vietnam War fiction has been done, re-done, and nearly done to death.  You would need multiple hands to count all the great works which have burned large swathes of napalm-fire trails across our literary landscape.  A very short list of the novels that put you in the midst of jungle combat would have to include Tree of SmokeMatterhorn, The Short-Timers, and just about anything written by Tim O'Brien.  For fiction that focuses on stateside soldiers coming home from, or about to be shipped off to, the conflict in Vietnam, standouts include The Barracks Thief, The Stunt Man (which was a better movie than book, but still worth reading), Dirty Work, and In Country.

I have been to the jungle and back so many times, my imaginary camo fatigues are salt-stained and wrinkled.  So it was with some wariness that I downloaded Daniel Woodrell's short story, "Oceanside," from Narrative and started reading.

To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, he had me at "hello."  Here's the opening paragraph:
Those marines with the worst loneliness put on longhair wigs once the bus stopped in Oceanside. They kept their wigs hidden during the ride from Camp Pendleton, stuffed into brown paper sacks, rolled up inside a beach towel, or shoved down their skivvies. The bus was packed and loud, everybody revving their hopes for magical moments to occur during the brief liberty that began as soon as the wheels stopped turning. Those bearing wigs rushed down the steps, across the bus station lobby past sagged civilians waiting on benches, and shoved into the head to crowd the mirror. Marines wearing bell-bottoms with fluttery stitching along the seams and peasant shirts elbowed one another aside to better study their reflected disguises. A little boy standing at a urinal stared in disbelief that grew toward panic as he absorbed a new, deep confusion about men while spattering his sneakers. The veteran marines slipped the wigs over their high-and-tights and yanked them back and forth, searching for the fit that looked most natural. None of them looked natural. The wigs were the cheapest you could buy, synthetic pelts that looked fake at any distance. The blond rugs were stiff as straw and held a plastic sheen, and the black ones were the desperate black that old ladies or fading actors favored to draw eyes away from their sinking faces. The wigs didn’t fool anybody in Oceanside, where jarheads were so plentiful, but there was hope they might somehow succeed up the coast in Laguna or Long Beach, and enlisted men could pass as hippies among hippies for a weekend of communion before returning to base for a 6:00 a.m. formation, three-mile run, and mess duty.
In truth, that paragraph was the teaser sent to me in an email from Narrative; to read the rest, I had to cough up a $4 "donation" to the magazine.  It was worth foregoing the proverbial double-shot venti cappuccino at Starbucks.

"Oceanside" is actually an excerpt from About Face, the next novel by Woodrell (who also wrote Winter's Bone and Tomato Red).  At least I can only assume it's his next novel, since I wasn't able to find much more about it on-line.  Narrative also has two other slices from that novel: "Shitbird" and "Blue Norton" (which opens with this line: "They woke us about three to go into the jungle and find the sergeant’s foot.").

Woodrell stays stateside in "Oceanside," set in the titular California coastal town, just south of the Marine base Camp Pendleton.  The story is narrated by a green "boot" who is so naive, it hurts to read about his day of leave in the balmy resort town.  He ships out in a week where he'll see duty as a forward observer--which is practically a suicide job as a seasoned Marine tells him: "Average life expectancy for them under fire is thirty seconds. Chili farts last longer’n that."

There's not a lot of plot involved in "Oceanside" (which, admittedly, is pretty short for your $4)--Marine recruit spends a day in town, walks along beach, talks with sexy war protester, watches fellow Marines puke, walks along beach some more, The End--but its strengths lie in the way Woodrell tells the story. 

The sights, sounds, and smells of a small town in the 1970s are all captured with succinct, quick-flowing language which proves Woodrell has mastery over the short form.  He's equally adept at telling us all we need to know about characters in a remarkable economy of words.  Here, for instance, is the first description of that protester handing out pamphlets:

A tall, red-eyed girl with a haircut like Moe’s from The Three Stooges shoved a paper at me, touching my chest. She dressed a lot like Grandpa: brown trousers held up by black suspenders over a faded blue work shirt with the cuffs turned back. Her paper was the kind that explained how to desert and sneak to Canada, and why you should. She was pretty loose under that work shirt when she gestured. She said, “Ever think about not killing? Have you?”
That one sentence--"She was pretty loose under that work shirt when she gestured"--tells me a lot about who she is and how the narrator sees her.

Or consider this detail about the narrator's squad leader, which Woodrell tosses into the stream of the story as casually as a boy throwing a pebble in the water: "He had such confused eyes and a dark crater low on his leg from Nui Kim Son."  We hear nothing more about that "dark crater" (at least not in this story), but it's something I carried with me through the rest of the story.

Even when Woodrell steps across the line marking the boundary between restraint and trying-too-hard, he does so in a beautiful manner--as in this sentence where the narrator stares at the ocean and ponders the weight of his future: "Every wave that broke made me imagine what force had shoved it so far across the world to splash my feet in America."

Based on the strength of "Oceanside" alone, I'll be first in line when (hopefully not "if") Woodrell releases About Face.  I won't even mind going back to the jungle one more time.

If you'd like to purchase "Oceanside," you can do so HERE.

Photo by Bruce Carr

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