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Unlikely Reads: Wandering Souls by Wayne Karlin

November 4, 2011

Before Hawaii Women’s Journal signed off, I’d started a book review column called “Unlikely Reads.” My first review: Wandering Souls by Wayne Karlin. (The review was published in Hawaii Women’s Journal Issue 4, Nov 2010–Feb 2011). My list of future reviews—handwritten and color-coded—had already grown rather long, so I felt sore disappointment not to be able to continue the column. I don’t know why it took me this long (eight months) to realize I could replicate the column here. Not as shiny as HWJ, and surely not as vibrant without the company of the poetry, prose, journalism, and other columns HWJ offered. But better than in my head!

The “unlikely” part of “Unlikely Reads” is covered in the text of that first review, reposted here.

Unlikely Reads: “The Price of Remaining Human”

Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam. Wayne Karlin. New York: Nation Books, 2009.

Two strangers meet on a mountain path. One dies, one lives. Decades later, they both return to finish the story.

More on that in a minute.

In a recent Atlantic blog entry (August 2010), Chris Jackson addresses the widely covered debate between women writers and a book industry they accuse of primarily celebrating men. Rather than enter the fray, Jackson experiments: for every book he reads by a man, he will read one by a woman. “How exciting is it to consider that there are worlds of literature out there that you may not have tapped into, undiscovered countries of books to explore that might yet tell you something new in a new way?”

Though literary exploration is hardly a new idea, I respect Jackson’s decision to get educated. It doesn’t matter how you enter untapped worlds—bookstores, eReaders, Mom’s den—so long as you enter them. Jackson inspired my own experiment: for every book that Amazon recommends to me, I will read ten it does not.

The first book on my list of unlikely reads came to me via a friend and professor of war literature.* It is here, in Wayne Karlin’s Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam, that two strangers meet on a mountain path. One is American soldier Homer Steedly, the other, a North Vietnamese soldier named Hoang Ngoc Dam. Both men draw weapons, but Homer wins the duel. Rather than destroy the notebooks he finds on Dam’s body (per military custom), Homer sends them to his mother for safekeeping. “I’m a farmer’s son that got sent halfway around the world and wound up killing people that I didn’t mean to” (256), says Homer of the incident that, like so many wartime encounters, wraps itself around his memory and squeezes out the details until just the bare bones, the worst of it, remains. Once home, Homer recalls all too clearly Dam’s face in death, but he forgets about the documents.

Thirty-five years later, Homer is urged by his wife to face his ghosts, and so asks his mother to dig out the letters he had sent home during the war. She sends them, along with Dam’s notebooks. “Homer’s memories had remained locked in the darkness of the box his mother had kept for him, in the greater darkness of the attic,” Karlin writes of the remarkable rediscovery. “He drew them out now, into the light” (175). In reading Dam’s notebooks, Homer finds healing and resolves to return them to Dam’s family—though as a retiree with health problems and a limited income, he’s not sure how he’ll track them down. However, through the veteran network, Homer meets fellow Vietnam vet Wayne Karlin, a writer and a frequent visitor to Vietnam.

Karlin believes this is a story that needs to be told. Yet admirably, he lets Homer do much of the telling: over half the lines on the first page alone are an uninterrupted quote from the quiet, unassuming man. Furthermore, Karlin understands his duty to contextualize, not dramatize, the story, a distinction that benefits the book’s first section.

Despite the geographic distance that separated them, Homer and Dam lived surprisingly parallel childhoods. Both grew up steeped in poverty, patriotism, and “political purity” (36), willing to fight for their countries. What’s fascinating is Karlin’s ability to keep us on tenterhooks: we know they will meet and that Dam will die. Yet I held my breath as I read about that “long, hot, green week in November” (71).

When the story moves to the present, with Homer reading the notebooks, Karlin the narrator becomes a character. He shares his own war experiences and lets loose the full force of his prose, at times astonishing in its tender portrait of human suffering and spiritual healing, at other times twisted with guilt. When Dam’s documents arrive at Karlin’s house:

I hesitated a long time before I opened the padded envelope. I knew that for the Hoang family what I had now was literally a piece of Dam’s soul. For a moment I felt a kind of resentment, fueled by an atavistic fear. What was I releasing into my home? I had not killed this man. As soon as the thought came to me, I tried to struggle against it. One of my Vietnamese friends had written me, when I told her that Homer might come over, that she would not want to meet the man, was not sure she could look into his face. Homer could have been me, I replied to her. He could have been any of us. [203]

Karlin grippingly illustrates “the price of remaining human” (10). He then takes us all—Homer included—back to Vietnam. Through his notebooks, Dam, one of the 300,000 “wandering souls” of Vietnam, returns home at last.

At heart this is a story of two men. When Karlin strays from that story, into the upbringing of Homer’s wife, for example, his otherwise tight narrative frays, obscuring its heart. Though metaphorically potent in a book of wandering souls, the narrative works best when it doesn’t wander.

Homer says of war veterans: “We may see the same world you do, but perceive it differently. We may even see parts of it through our perception that do not exist in yours” (130). Wandering Souls implores us not to enter other worlds but to enter our own with the willingness to perceive parts of it we’ve never seen before.

*HWJ‘s word limit didn’t allow me to explain that my friend and former professor is Randy Fertel, author of New Orleans family memoir The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak. I attended an illuminating conversation between Randy and Calvin Trillin about the book (and about global business, the origins and expansion of New Orleans, litigious families, and more) this past Wednesday. Perhaps seeing Randy, and thinking about all the authors he’s introduced me to, ping-ponged around my brain and knocked against the interrupted Unlikely Reads column. Reviews now uninterrupted!

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One Comment
  1. I love that you’re planning on continuing a really great column in this space, which I think is a PERFECT home for it!


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