on 7 March 2003
In A River in May, young Special Forces Lieutenant Francis Lopez, adopted from Mexico by a tragedy-stalked aristocratic family and schooled in France, flees his personal ghosts by going to Viet Nam. His life with a handful of US soldiers in a mountain basecamp, commanded by a captain who is unnaturally obsessed with the destruction of a rag-tag nearby village, supported by South Vietnamese troops who disappear when there are rumors of attack, is surrealistically harrowing. His ultimate attempt at redemption is even more so.
This is not beach reading, by any means. It's affecting stuff, graphic, by turns blackly humorous and horrifically sad. But this makes it well worth the read--and the ending had me turning pages late at night.
Author Edward Wilson, a Viet Nam veteran who served with the Special Forces, paints a setting so real you can feel the rats nibbling at your fingernails. His characters are living, breathing, bleeding, three-dimensional human beings, quirks, egos and all. And his war is the real thing--a cesspool of chaos and psychopathology, a logistical Catch-22 where idealism is near kin to cynicism, corruption is rewarded, betrayal is an everyday inconvenience, and the cruel play sadistic games unhampered and uncondemned. It is a world where the lucky survive, and come home to wonder what luck really is.
We live in a nervous, armed-to-the-teeth world where it is vital, I believe, to demystify war, to rethink heroism and question the wisdom of sending children to die in the service of political whimsy. A River in May does all this, with fine writing and a solid sense of story. It deserves to be on the shelf next to Tim O'Brien's books, and it should be required reading for anyone who votes.
on 26 May 2002
A River in May
By Edward Wilson
'Stylistically sophisticated' first novel by Edward Wilson, an American Special Forces officer during the Vietnam War, is not for the faint hearted. Although the title suggests some sunny, sentimental romanticism, one take of the darkly powerful and striking cover dispel any possibility of nostalgia or banality.
This shockingly truthful and emotionally complex supercharged heavyweight - information stacked - reveals to be incredibly effective and masterly at evoking the sinister and macabre obscene destruction surrounding Vietnams brutality, that was of holocaustic proportion. In factual, punchy, lean and mean lines the concentrated essence of this historical (and human) malfunction, wreaking unbelievably gruesome and despairing events, leaves the main character, Lopez, as well as its reader with a sickening, gut wrenching stench in the revelation of its horror and futility.
This book parallels the war that rages within Lopez, a twenty-three-year-old Lieutenant, an American of Mexican origin, to the transference to the larger and far reaching atrocities of pandemic proportion of Vietnams degradation and butchery. Lopez, an independent spirit from childhood, juggles precariously with feelings of loss, guilt, displacement and lack of belonging. This inability to reconcile between good and evil, love and rejection, the adherence to rules and what is right, as well as his desire to please, wrangle, and are in conflict with harboured individualistic and anarchical tendencies. This foot in both camps has Lopez emotionally, morally and intellectually dancing over hot coals as to the correct course of action. This book is not about hero's - there are no hero's, because any quest soon reveals itself as pointless, meaningless and base.
'A rational side of Lopez knew that the whole business was puerile: guns and other toys of war were emblems of infantile regression.' 'But, it was still queerly fascinating.'
These contradictions in Lopez foster his final, fatal actions, as the culmination of his search for answers/escape/release and the need to make amends on some human level that transcends all known moral, cultural and ethical code. Killing, death, corpses, mutilation - enough blood and guts to turn the pages as bloodstained as a slaughterhouse floor. As concise and surgically explicit in its execution as a medical chronicle, Wilson's writing style is honest. Conceals nothing: Spares you nothing. Although numbingly brutal, it is smattered with fragments of surprising beauty and integrity. There is nothing trivial about this work.
Right through the book, even through all the hopelessness, sadness, injustice and destruction, Lopez's ability to recognize and appreciate beauty and goodness where present, never wanes. In the paddy fields, the mountainous scenery, in the people whose lives touch his. Beautiful and sensory descriptions, as in,
'After a time the air turned damp and chill, the stars were extinguished, a bank of mist rolled down the river, licked the base of the mountain, liked it, and ascended the slopes.'
Amongst the black, sparkling pinpricks of intellect and the poetic glimmer as respite. Urgent, bleak eroticism and psychosexual depictions manifest Lopez's disenchantment and frustration from emotional unfulfilment and quelled passion. Dreams are bizarre distortions and nightmarish magnifications. Punctuated by fabulous and incongruously humorous lines, most part dripping liquidly the blackest comedy and irony, observing oddity, extraordinary incidents and the insights and reasoning's of Wilson's rich cavalcade of characters, with lines such as,
'Sure, Redhorn was evil, but his was an evil with integrity.'
This work occasionally tickles the funny bone, but it doesn't attempt to tickle ears. Thought provoking and catalyst in approach, its strength and power ever present in an almost taunting, unforgiving and relentless pace, which marches on irrevocably towards its abhorrently hellacious and dramatic conclusion in Lopez's desperate attempt to mend the irremediable.
Edward Wilson's 'A River in May' enlightens with a baptism of fire into the frightening, yet compelling spheres, both inside the character of Lopez's psyche, and the wider ramifications of the psychological world in relation to men, war, culture and its historical and ethical deliberation. As meaty and bloody as a flash-panned beefsteak, its rawness sometimes unpalatable, yet ever compulsive. This is no grunting meatheads take on glamorising warmongery. Whether its polemic end is paradox, primitivism, utilitarian or knee-jerk reaction, its profoundly unsettling and disturbing genre will remain to haunt the reader. This book means something. Read it.
Review by Brigitte Hoskins