I get that when you start off your book with a story about Aussie stoners and low-rent prostitutes, then announce that you're going to tear the mainstream travel press a new one, reviews and reader reaction to the thing are largely going to focus on the gory details. This is understandable; I'm not complaining about it. Unless your name is Clinton
or maybe Richard North Patterson
, nobody asks you to write a book, so when you roll out your story to the public, you're pretty much obliged to take whatever response comes back.
Even so, you dump yourself out across 324 pages and it's interesting to see what sticks with people and what doesn't. Beyond the attention grabbers, I think of Smile When You're Lying as a memoir (a funny one, I hope) masquerading as a travel book. Like most memoirs, it's filled not only with my stories, but the amusing and sometimes poignant stories of people I've met (a few celebs like Mark Cuban and Dwight Yoakam) and friends I've made along the way.
A lot of travel writing seems as if it's written in a vacuum ? as though once the writer gets to the Caribbean or the Maldives or wherever, nothing outside the details of the trip can be discussed. I find this kind of travel writing about as interesting as someone else's slide show. So when I sat down to write Smile, I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be a "travel" book with enough leeway to include other topics. That's why the book is filled with references and opinions and stories covering music, politics, sports, history, movies, business, books, and just about anything else of general interest.
My favorite part of the book satisfies most of these requirements and even though it doesn't seem to be a lot of other peoples' favorite part, I'd like to reprint here. By way of brief setup, I'll note that I didn't write a single word of my favorite part of the book. It's an email from my friend Glasser (reprinted in full, with the author's permission), a redoubtable expat I lived next door to in Japan for one of the most inglorious years of my life.
Glasser's charm, wit, and experience made the "Kojima captivity" tolerable for me and another misplaced expat, a larger-than-life figure named Shanghai Bob, who also appears here and there in the book. Perhaps the story below will help you understand why, whenever Shanghai Bob and I get together, we still reminisce about the many life-affirming happy hours we enjoyed with the legendary Glasser in his "conservatory," a closet-sized room in his closet-sized apartment reserved exclusively for activities that left it reeking of gin and cigarettes.
During our less explosive drinking sessions, Shanghai Bob and I pulled out of Robert most of the essentials of The Glasser Story, including bits about his time in Vietnam. On several occasions, Glasser had hinted that his knowledge of classic poetry had saved his life there and we were anxious for the details. Some years later I asked Glasser to recount it and encouraged him to commit the rest of his experiences to paper. I told him he'd make a mint selling it, and I'd make a tidy profit as his agent. Here in its entirety is his response to my letter:
÷ ÷ ÷
As for the Vietnam story, it goes roughly like this. My third day in country at Quang Tri Combat Base, about ten miles south of the DMZ, I was called into a large tent with twenty or so other replacements and told that since a company in the battalion I was to be sent to as a clerk had been more or less wiped out in an ambush, I would be posted there as infantry. And yes, since I had no infantry training and little indication that I might be a natural for that sort of thing, it was pretty much a death or dismemberment sentence.
I came out of the tent and noticed a second lieutenant staring at my helmet, on which I'd written "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori, Wilfred Owen, 1918." Owen was a WWI British poet; the title is from Horace ("It is good and sweet to die for your country"); and the poem (read it, if you haven't) is probably the most savage anti-war statement ever penned.
Lieutenant: That Latin, son? (He was about twenty-five and I was twenty-three but all enlisted men are called "son" by officers exercising combat noblesse oblige.)
Me: Yessir. Horace, sir.
Lieutenant: What's it mean?
Me: It's good and sweet to die for your country, sir.
Lieutenant (deeply moved): We need more men like you.
Me: Yessir. Thank you, sir.
Lieutenant: Can you type?
Me: Yessir. Ohhhhhh yessir! My MOS is clerk typist, sir.
Lieutenant: We're looking for someone at Headquarter's company. Come with me.
Me: Yessir, thank you, sir.
And so I escaped certain death to spend the rest of my tour typing for a revolving cast of lunatic officers. True story, but it does sound a little too neat, doesn't it? Too patly ironic, too hooray for the college kid who fooled the lifer lieutenant.
Still, while I vouch for it, I confess I no longer really know what happened and what didn't happen to me in Vietnam. The mind, unbidden, rewrites things, creates new images, makes new connections, draws new morals. War stories are mostly frauds, and mostly unintentionally so. Half my nights in Vietnam I was stoned and what I saw and what I dreamed and what I hallucinated are so intermingled that forty years later I'm damned if I can untangle it all. And some things I remember which seemed completely normal at the time ? rolling out of my cot twice a night to hide in an underground crypt during mortar attacks ? have startled me years later. Did they happen? Yes, I think so. But I see them as in a dream and as happening to someone else entirely.
And anger, Carlos. Anger distorts reality as much as drugs. And I was Angry most of the time I was in the army and for two years after I got out. You know Fussell's Wartime? A very good book, but not, like his The Great War and Modern Memory, a great book. I think he never got over his anger ? at the Army, at the U.S., at himself for his real and imagined failures, and for the things he was made to do.
So, there'll be no Vietnam memoir for me. But if you're curious, buy me a drink sometime and I'll paste a few pieces together for you.
P.S. The second lieutenant (and this I do recall) was more or less nuts. He used to tie up foot-long centipedes with rubber bands, chop them in bits, pour lighter fluid on them, and set them on fire. On his desktop.