Give This Man a Pulitzer Prize: Review of Black Virgin Mountain: a Return to Vietnam, by Larry Heinemann
Doubleday: May 2005 ISBN 0-385-51221-X
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Once upon a time, when people still picketed, a populist slogan proclaimed "the personal is the political"; it was as much a declaration against isolation and narcissism as it was a koan of compassion. Our times now know much about what Jane Goodall (in Reason for Hope) called "the materialistic and often greedy and selfish lifestyle […]in the western world" and even the spiritualist shill is, as one habitual criminal said "all about the dollar." Altruism is expendable, folks; if publishers are more about their profit than their contributions to the greater good, Random House probably would not have published Black Virgin Mountain if they knew what the book said: author Larry Heinemann is not the kind of person to ignore the ghost in the room with polite palaver.
War is one of those primate peccadilloes about which much ado is made without effort toward cessation -not while there's money to be made, it seems. Heinemann mentions this by page three of his text ("war was war, to be sure, but business was (ever and always), of course, still business") when discussing the indemnity the Army paid the Michelin company for loss of use of the latex-bearing rubber trees -- a paradox of global irony only the most stoned freshman could miss (why were we in Vietnam? Natural resources, young man; your car wants tires. Why are we in any war-to rape and pillage we go, what bell hooks calls "patriarchal violence"). As this text is the third book by Heinemann with Vietnam as its subject (he won the National Book Award for the second, Paco's Story; beating, as it were, Toni Morrison for Beloved -who, with poetic justice, went on to win the Nobel), the book's publication is viable on one hand because as Heinemann himself said with some surprise "I've written an accidental trilogy" and on the other because every action-adventure event fuels that rush of testosterone so many addicts adore so much.
There's no shortage of blood and guts in this text; nor is there a shortage of the enumerations of military equipment that insures fellow Vietnam War writer Tim O'Brien a place in every college literary anthology. In fact, the literary nature of the text is a sub-theme of the work: Heinemann is either enough of a gentleman or schooled enough to make direct references to other writers, and does so in the casually learned style of hooks' use of author/title rather than formal citation. Ironically, Heinemann refers to Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain -an amusement, to be sure, for the reader-and the text of Black Virgin Mountain itself echoes a social acid reminiscent of the much-lauded, much banned Huckleberry Finn.
Black Virgin Mountain is unashamedly didactic and postmodern: its narrative thread follows the spine of a travelogue to Vietnam, but the meditations on the author's personal memory are neuro-networked with history and a wide-awake awareness that is now, currently, transgressive. Heinemann's text is a near-perfect example of Ginsberg's axiom to write "without fear […]for my soul's own ear" (Notes for "Howl"). The language of the text contains an ego-less craftsmanship that is so pitifully rare in contemporary big house publications. Heinemann himself discusses language use in one of the text's open self-referential passages, where he uses the collective plural and says:
The result is that the blunt realism and frank barracks language of much of the literature to emerge from the Vietnam War leaves very little of the realities of a grunt's work to the imagination( as well as the war's most grotesque absurdities and moral obscenities).
Given the fear-mongering and fatuous webs of deceit that is media's daily ration to the populace, Heinemann's risk becomes obvious; however, the text was nearly fifteen years in the writing, was called "the train book" as a household working title, and Heinemann's rage - albeit and verily a forge for his words - is not an isolated case.
It is intensely unfortunate that our culture practices collective amnesia, that global colonization is the cause of endless carnage. John LaFlower, who spent many years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, once said "war is a result of overpopulation." A homemade certificate that proclaimed "Welcome Home, Soldier" brought tears to the eyes of that permanently emaciated old man; yet his quote, posted on a student comment board, brought vociferous derision. Heinemann's volcanic text finds a more subtle derision by being simultaneously published and suppressed: the copy at elbow now was not on a table in front (with the pathetic mutants of modern writing posted as new releases -more's pity the trees), but a single volume buried in a military history section that looked to boast only glossy atrocity. If Clemens' quote "the man who doesn't read is no better than the man who can't" has truth, then the popularity of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is an unforgivable hypocrisy. That Heinemann ought to be paid America's accolades is obvious-he earned them. That Cary Ann Flora, the staff assistant to the editorial board at Random house, responded to the long-distance suggestion - with a month before the Pulitzer nomination deadline-of Heinemann's inclusion in the Random House nominees with the less than inspirational "they're gunna do what they're gunna do" (and similar response by email was made regarding an academic order) is the result of ingenious indifference. Nafisi herself seems to agree, without citation, with the lawyers for the prosecution of Nazi war crimes: a lack of concern for anyone but oneself is the core of evil. In this light, Heinemann need not worry if roses don't crown his victory, for dismissal and suppression prove his(and Nafisi's) point to be true: America can err. If our country still values its founding principles -awash as they are in genocide's viscera-then dissent is not only honorable but instructive. Black Virgin Mountain's release, at this our now, is the timeliest thermometer of our culture, craven or not.
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