This Young Adult title moves at the accelerated pace of an ADD teen mind. Sometimes I pick up a YA title just because they’re a fast read. There are times when I don’t want to feel I’m the main character in one of James Joyce’s oeuvres, Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses. So I picked up a YA title called Fallen Angels.
After clearing the first hurdle of prosaic scene setting, I started to read with something approaching pleasure. What little remained of my adolescent brain was keen for action. I voraciously turned the pages looking for bad things to happen.
YA writer extraordinaire, Walter Dean Myers, was never a soldier in Vietnam but it’s not so you’d notice. He has the jargon, the scene, the set, and he has the characters. I wish he’d expended a little more energy on naming his characters. “Pee-Wee” doesn’t quite get it with me, though that character is comic, boastful, brazen, annoying, and you hope there’s one in every outfit. Troops like ‘Pee-Wee’ are much in demand for entertainment value during those inevitably boring moments in the military where you’re waiting to go from Point A to Point B.
Point B is Vietnam, of course. There’s a bit of corny irony in that fact that main character and narrator, Richard Perry, shouldn’t be in Viet Nam because he has a ‘medical profile’. In places where people are dying, no one cares too much about a bad knee. No one cares much about anything, in fact, except staying alive and out of harm’s way. But Perry’s outfit has an ambitious captain, bucking for Major, who keeps volunteering his company for extra patrols.
Political reporters familiar with tales of jungle warfare in Vietnam believe that there was an obsession with ‘body count’ in Vietnam. The metric of body counting came more from the politicians back in the U.S who didn’t understand how to measure war except by the number of people killed.
This is bad news for the boys in Perry’s war-weary squad. Most days dawn with the patrols setting out at first light on search and destroy missions. The troops of Fallen Angel are depicted as the victims of ambitious leaders, anxious for promotion. That concept is amplified in the minds of these young troops experiencing first combat and sudden death. To them, the war is like the gunfight at the OK corral, played out in an endless, mind-numbing loop.
Enemy contacts grow more frequent and more deadly as the novel follows the formulaic pattern of popular war movies. Yet, the book manages to come alive by the author’s keen eye for research detail. Description of infantry weapons and tactics is far better than one expects from a Young Adult title. Featured are the ubiquitous M-16 carbine, the M-79 grenade launcher, the M-60 machine gun.
Flying above are Spooky Gunships and Puff the Magic Dragon. At the same time, Myers gives credible and realist descriptions of infantry assault tactics. There are little bits and pieces of the real Vietnam sprinkled everywhere in this novel, and a tinge of racial tension. And you’ve got to like Johnson, an African-American character, dark, brooding and soulfully black, bravely toting his M-60 on the hip and wetting down the bad guys.
Author Dean Myers doesn’t sterilize his story in order to shield his reader’s tender young minds from the realities of warfare. The VC disembowel an infant, in one scene, booby trap a baby in another. Frustrated GI’s peg shots into unidentified persons suspected of being Viet Cong, shooting farm animals and family pets. Myers is non-judgmental for the most part. His empathies are not traduced into unbearable sentimentality. The author avoids the mindless revisionism and self-righteous political hindsight which poisons the well of American culture and history.
If I had been the highbrow sort of guy who would think a Young Adult novel was beneath my intellect, I might have missed this very quick and rewarding experience of reading Dean Myer’s novel, Fallen Angels.