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Fatal Light by Richard Currey
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Fatal Light (1988)

by Richard Currey

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10828175,388 (3.79)24
"A devastating portrait of war in all its horror, brutality, and mindlessness, this extraordinary novel is written in beautifully cadenced prose. A combat medic in Vietnam faces the chaos of war, set against the tranquil scenes of family life back home in small-town America. This young man's rite of passage is traced through jungle combat to malaria-induced fever visions to the purgatory of life in military-occupied Saigon. After returning home from war to stay with his grandfather, he confronts his own shattered personal history and the mysterious human capacity for renewal"--Publisher's description.… (more)

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This morning I finished reading Richard Currey’s Fatal Light, a novel of the Vietnam War first published more than twenty-five years ago. The edition I have is a handsome 20th anniversary reprint from Santa Fe Writers Project (a small press that has a fascinating story of its own).

Currey’s novel is a slight thing, only 170 pages, but it is perhaps one of the most deeply affecting Vietnam novels I have ever read, and I have read many books to come out of that war, both fiction and memoirs. I often wonder why I am so drawn to books about Vietnam, as well as those about other wars, from World War I all the way to the wars of today. And I think maybe it’s because I feel a certain amount of survivor’s guilt for having missed “my war,” - Vietnam. A “war baby,” born in 1944, I would have been prime cannon fodder for that jungle war. In fact, if I had gone from high school to college I might very well have been drafted after I finished, or dropped out - because there are so many ‘ifs’ in this conversation I continue to have with myself. In any case, I was not drafted. Clueless and ignorant of what was already happening in southeast Asia in 1962, I enlisted in the army right out of high school and spent the next three years doing the innocently disreputable kinds of things most young men do when they are far from home for the first time - growing up, I suppose. I did tours in northern Turkey and southern Germany, where I mostly enjoyed myself and made friendships that have endured to this day. I was discharged from the army in August of 1965, at a time when tens of thousands of additional American troops were being dispatched to the fight in Vietnam.

Richard Currey, five years younger than I, was drafted out of Washington, D.C., in 1968, at the height of the war-protests and marches. Hoping to avoid the ground war, he enlisted in the Navy, but he ended up in the jungle anyway, a combat medic attached to a Marine reconnaissance unit.
Fatal Light is the artistic result of that experience. In an e-mail exchange I had with him, Currey emphasized, however, that his tour in Vietnam -

“... only peripherally informs my novel, First Light, which is completely about the psychological elements of serving in harm’s way. I wanted to tell the time-honored story of Boy-Goes-To-War, but in a different way and with a different voice than more traditional war novels had approached similar material. I tried to dive a little deeper into the personal and emotional in the novel rather than re-play the straight-up tropes of the combat tale.”

Well, he has certainly succeeded on all counts, because the personal, emotional and psychological elements take center stage in this tale told by a young combat medic, unnamed - a useful device in that, being nameless, he becomes Everyman, giving a voice to every young man who served in that green hell and returned home scarred in various and horrific ways.

I should tell you, however, that in choosing to focus on the inner effects of combat, Currey does not - cannot - completely ignore the more traumatic physical aspects. A particularly moving scene, for example, is one where the narrator’s close friend, Linderman, takes a shotgun blast at close range, leaving his chest “a matted heap of bloody meat” -

“He tried to speak. When he did, a whisper. ‘God, man. Don’t let me go.’
I cradled his head.
‘Strange,’ Linderman whispered. ‘I’m young.’
‘Yeah. We all are.’ ...
I reached behind him, lifting his body off the ground, embracing him. He looked at me, his eyes clear and troubled, and he said, ‘Now I’m gonna cry. What a goddam thing.’
‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘I’ve got you. I’m with you.” ...
And Linderman was dead.”

My own eyes brimmed with tears at reading this passage, and it was not the only time. Because Currey’s vivid descriptions of the destruction of lives so brief, so “young” in a war so ill-conceived cannot help but evoke strong emotional responses.

In another passage, Currey’s medic-narrator, wounded and returned to duty, is later hospitalized with malaria and is tormented by fevered nightmares of all he has seen -

“Dreams careened, haunted, collided, and I was always forced to look: the double amputees, incinerated faces with lips burned off and teeth locked in satanic grins, bodies in decay and distended with gas, fingers and noses and ears rat-gnawed, the ones floating face down in paddies pulled out after days with tongues and eyeballs protruding from macerated skulls, and their gunshot wounds looing so innocent, so simple.”

How does one sanely survive experiences like these? Because Currey’s narrator came from small-town West Virginia on the banks of the Ohio, where he enjoyed a happy, normal childhood and remembers -

“... the voluptuous spread of summer darkness as my brother and sisters and I ran into dusk, the flare of our cries running with the blink of fireflies, careen and cascade of breath, and the bright gasp of lightning behind clouds before thunder began in the distance ... Later, from our beds, we heard the rain begin and grow and rush over the countryside, an intense whisper, and the smell of water and wet earth was everywhere like a destiny, steaming in the moon’s white voice.”.

Gorgeous prose passages like this are not surprising, given that Currey began his writing life as a poet. Glimpses into the narrator’s boyhood on the Ohio, fishing and playing with his brother and friends, evoke images of Tom and Huck and Twain’s Mississippi.

I was also reminded of other Vietnam books I have read over the past forty-plus years, beginning with books like Ron Kovic’s searing memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, or The Big V, William Pelfrey’s ground-breaking first novel by a combat veteran of that war. And another random passage describing a mangy stray dog encountered in a Saigon bar brought to mind Tracy Kidder’s adopted stray in his Vietnam memoir, My Detachment. And one more, because of the young narrator’s final meditative dream of nine men walking, walking in the jungle. It was the nine men that got me, because of the “Old Army Prayer” -

F**k ‘em all but nine -
Six for pall bearers,
Two for roadguards,
And one to count cadence.

One to Count Cadence, James Crumley’s fine cult-favorite novel of the Army Security Agency in early Vietnam, is one I have read more than once, and its dark craziness is complementary to the horror depicted in Currey’s Fatal Light.

One final note, a personal one. Currey’s narrator had a close relationship with his grandfather, Earl McFail, who was the first family member he visited upon his return from Vietnam. I found the chapters on this time to be every bit as moving as the ones in the jungle and Saigon. Because Earl McFail is seventy-one, and he watched his son go off to the Korean War, and then his grandson to Vietnam. When I began reading books about Vietnam and other wars I was young, in my twenties, and I could always relate to what the young protagonists were going through. Now I am seventy, a grandfather. My perspective has changed. “I’ve looked at life from both sides now,” as the song says. I could feel what Earl McFail felt when he embraced his grandson, returned from the war.

Currey waited nearly twenty years to get his novel down on paper. Not quite as long as Karl Marlantes took with Matterhorn, but I think Currey got it right. I concur with Tim O’Brien. Fatal Light is perhaps one of the best damn books to ever come out of Vietnam. I give it my highest recommendation. ( )
1 vote TimBazzett | May 27, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book was sent to me through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Well, I'm just going to come out and say it. I didn't care for this book. I went into it hoping for an experience like that when I read
Loon - where I didn't expect to like the book at all, but ended up loving it. However, it was not to be. I don't know if it was the way the book was written or what, but it did not resonate with me.

The book is written in two different styles: one is a regular, everyday story-telling type of writing, but the other is this staccato, choppy, stream-of-consciousness style that I did NOT care for at all. I get that it is supposed to convey the confusion, weariness, and sadness that the nameless protagonist is experiencing during his time in Vietnam, but I couldn't get into it. Maybe that is because I felt like I couldn't relate to the narrator. We never learn his name or much about him, really. He loves a girl, he gets sent off to war, he has a family at home who miss him, he has strange wartime experiences in Vietnam, then he comes home. That's about it.

Maybe I'm burnt out on Vietnam books, having read Loon not too long ago, and then Beach Music, which also had a Vietnam component to it. Maybe, as I suspect, I just don't like books about war. Maybe I don't like books about Vietnam. I just didn't feel like I connected with this book or learned much from it. Had I not known what an LZ was from reading Loon, I certainly wouldn't have found out by reading this book.

Two out of five Whatevers. Recommended for people who like war books or Vietnam-era literature. Just not for me.

2011-8 ( )
  Lexi2008 | Jun 24, 2011 |
Richard Currey‘s Fatal Light is an unusual novel in which an unnamed narrator provides readers with an inside view of what it is like to be a draftee before, during, and after the war. Beyond the bullets, the Viet Cong, the mines, and the brutality of war, soldiers had to navigate a culture they didn’t understand, malaria, injury, and unexpected relationships. The prose is sparse and the chapters are small, but each line, each chapter can knock readers over or back into their seats after putting them on the edge.

The unnamed narrator’s family is dispersed between West Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio, and the tranquility of the Ohio River and its surrounding landscape acts as the backdrop for the later contrasts of Vietnam’s jungles and the war.

Read the full review: http://savvyverseandwit.com/2010/11/fatal-light-by-richard-currey.html ( )
  sagustocox | Nov 16, 2010 |
The soldier is drafted and even though this is not a popular war, it is obvious that his family has a patriotic spirit that invokes a certain amount of obligation for the narrator. In fact, the father reminisces about his own military experience often with that *wink* *wink* *nudge* *nudge* manner about the booze and ladies that his son will experience.

In any event, I loved this book for the reality that it evokes. And I highly recommend it. I don't know how it compares to other Vietnam wars, but it's got to be good if it's re-released, right?

Read more here:

http://annotatedreading.blogspot.com/2010/03/fatal-light.html ( )
  readingthruthenight | Mar 21, 2010 |
Two comments about Fatal Light: 1) This may be the best war novel I have ever read; 2) People who criticize this novel for its paucity of main character description (to say nothing of development) are missing the point. A corollary: The second point is directly responsible for the first.

1) Fatal Light's plot is the plot of every war novel you've ever read: a young man, innocent and full of dreams is changed by the brutality he experiences fighting a war in a far off land. The difference here is that Currey's narrator is barely there; as do all war novel protagonists, he speaks of his childhood, his first love, his fellow soldiers, his experiences on the battlefield, on leave, in the hospital, but with little attempt to provide back story or narrative continuity. Currey's protagonist is essentially narrating this story to himself, which means there's no need for him to fill in the particulars because he already knows them fully well.

But we readers, of course, cannot know this information, with the end result that it is simply not provided. In most novels, this would be the kiss of death. Here, it is what makes Fatal Light extraordinary. Why? Because any war novel with a defined protagonist is as much about the protagonist as it is the war it's set in--what happened to the protagonist, how the protagonist's friend Johnny XYZ did or didn't pull through, if the protagonist survived this or that battle, how his family reacted when he came home. It is precisely because Fatal Light's protagonist is barely there that the novel truly becomes about the Vietnam War and not just a few of the people to whom it happened.

The same can be said for the plot. Because there's so little emphasis on the main character, the plot is not about how one man was strong enough to overcome the odds or too sensitive to withstand the horror, it's about the horror of the war itself, the damage it causes to everyone and everything in its path, which is perhaps the truest depiction of war possible. Finally, Currey's prose is so beautiful and atmospheric it defies description. This is one of the most powerful books I have read in quite some time. Read this book. ( )
1 vote Trismegistus | Sep 1, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richard Curreyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Forsblom, Harry(KÄÄnt.)secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jakobeit, BrigitteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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