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My Books

This is the post excerpt.

I have been writing since I was six years old. I now have four novels and seventeen stories in print.

My first published book, Friendly Casualties, was a novel in short stories derived from experiences in the 13 years I trundled between the U.S. and Vietnam to provide signals intelligence support to U.S. Army and Marine combat units fighting in South Vietnam. The first half of the book is a series of short stories in which characters from one story reappear in another. The second half is a novella that draws together all the preceding tales.

No-Accounts came from my years of caring for AIDS patients. It tells the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. I got into helping men with AIDS to help me cope with the horrors of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. When I was with my patients, men suffering more than I was, my unbearable memories went dormant.

Next came The Trion Syndrome. It begins with the Greek Trion legend about a demigod so brutal to the vanquished that the gods sent the Eucharides, three female monsters, to drown him. The protagonist, Dave Bell, is haunted by half-remembered visions of the war in Vietnam. At his lowest point, he recalls that he killed a child. Dave considers suicide, but a young man appears and helps him. It is his illegitimate son, a child he had tried to kill through abortion, who now helps him find his way home.

To be published in March 2017 is Last of the Annamese. I used this novel to confront my memories of the fall of Saigon from which I escaped under fire. Once again, the image of the boy-child recurs, as the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, a retired Marine, grieves over the loss of his son, killed in combat in Vietnam. He returns to Vietnam as a civilian intelligence analyst after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and encounters Vietnamese boys whom he tries to save during the conflagration.

 

Fall of Saigon Presentation for the American Legion

Last week, at their invitation, I gave the fall of Saigon presentation to my chapter of the American Legion. I had given a truncated version of the talk a couple of years ago to the same group, but this time it was the full presentation with slides.

The experience was both special and strange.

Special because I was talking to veterans who know military life. Some of them had, like me, seen combat. Some had been in Vietnam. These men know the life I led. They’ve lived it themselves.

Strange because I am so different from the men in the audience. These are ordinary, down-to-earth and earthy guys. They have about them the humility, the nobility, and the quiet pride that goes with being an ordinary American guy—husband, father, wage earner, craftsman, pillar of the community. I have some of those qualities, too, but I’m also a published author, an artist, a member of the intelligentsia with a PhD.

What mattered that evening was none of our differences but the common ordeals we’ve endured. As so often happens when I give the presentation, I choked up when I talked about the South Vietnamese officer who shot his wife, his children, and himself rather than live under communism when Vietnam fell. Tears blocked my eyes when I spoke of the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with my organization and were killed or captured when Saigon fell. My voice failed when I described how, after the fall of Saigon, despite amoebic dysentery and pneumonia, I didn’t seek medical help because I so yearned to go home.

As I told these stories, I was greeted with total silence and rivetted attention. Every eye was on me. These men were with me. They understood.

I’ve given the fall of Saigon presentation more than forty times. This time, more than any other, I knew my audience was at one with me because they all had lived through experiences like mine. These men are my brothers. We share a bond like no other.

Points of View in The Trion Syndrome

The story of Dave’s downfall in The Trion Syndrome is told from two points of view, his and that of his wife, Mary. Using different viewpoints allowed me to show varying elements of the story. Dave and Mary saw events in contrasting ways, and each knew facts unknown to the other.

The two perspectives shed light on the failure of a marriage in which the partners truly loved each other. Each wanted more than anything else to stay with the other, yet chose to separate. What each knew and saw led to their decisions.

Key to narrative was that each partner withheld critical information from the other. Only toward the end of the book when the unshared information comes to light does the possibility of reconciliation become possible.

Poverty in Trion

In The Trion Syndrome, the protagonist Dave flees. His marriage has collapsed, he’s lost his job, his children won’t see him. His life is in ruins. He runs away to rural Maine where he ekes out a living as a gas station attendant, sleeps in a storage shed, and considers suicide. He lives in poverty.

I can write about poverty. I’ve been there. When I was a child, my lawyer father went to prison for embezzling money from his client. My mother was an alcoholic. We were so poor that at times I didn’t have anything to eat. Throughout high school and college, I worked for as much as twenty hours a week at part-time jobs to survive. I suffered my first bout of exhaustion at the end of my senior year in college (University of California, Berkeley) and missed my graduation ceremony.

In short, I know whereof I speak as I write about Dave’s squeaking by on next to nothing. Exemplary is his need to replace his watch, a necessity for a working man who deals with the public. He finds the money to buy the cheapest Timex by cutting back on what he eats.

In my case but not in Dave’s, my time of being poor taught me important lessons. I learned of my own resiliency. My self-reliance, born of having to take care of myself as a child when my parents were absent or unable, was honed. I was a better man for it. That knack for relying on myself saw me through the fall of Saigon.

Thomas Mann’s Retelling of the Trion Myth

In telling Dave’s story in The Trion Syndrome, I knew I needed to bring home the meaning of the Trion myth to him in a way that would penetrate his core. So I invented an unpublished novella by Thomas Mann based on the Trion myth and told of Dave’s discovery of the manuscript. In Mann’s retelling of the story, Dave believes he sees himself in the character of Trion Kretchmar, Mann’s protagonist, but doesn’t understand why. He later learns that the painful memories of what happened in combat in Vietnam have receded into his unconsciousness. He’s haunted by nightmares but can’t remember what happened.

Using Thomas Mann as the key to Dave’s mysterious attraction to the Trion myth worked well for several reasons. First, Dave is a German scholar and familiar with Mann as one of the best German writers of the twentieth century. Second, Mann is one of my favorite writers, and many of the themes of his masterpiece, Doktor Faustus, are echoed in Trion. Third, Mann typically chose myths as the basis of his stories, and the Trion tale would have appealed to him. With all the pieces fitting together so well, the story wrote itself—Dave finds an unpublished novella by Mann, apparently abandoned because Mann rewrote much of the material into Doktor Faustus. The Mann’s retelling of the Trion resonates with Dave and eventually leads to the re-entry of his experiences into his conscious memory.

The Trion Myth

When the story told in The Trion Syndrome came to me, I knew I needed a Greek myth to accompany the story. The myth needed to crystallize the fundaments of the narrative. I worked my way through Robert Graves’ two-volume The Greek Myths but found nothing that fit the story of Dave’s decline or eventual salvation. So I made up a myth which appears just before the unlabeled prologue in the book’s text:

The Trion Myth

Ares, the god of war, beheld a maiden washing herself in a stream. Overcome with lust, he plunged into the water and ravished her. The girl bore a male child, Trion, who throughout his days would be afraid of water. Bent on revenge, the girl carried the infant Trion to the city of Thrace to confront Ares. To her surprise, the god doted on the boy and taught him the secrets of war.

Larger and stronger than other boys, Trion grew to become a fierce warrior, renowned for savagery in battle. Indifferent to pain, given to brute force, and addicted to dominance, he earned the enmity of Hera because of his cruelty to the vanquished. He fell afoul of all the gods when, as the leader of Spartan forces, he disemboweled his own infant son to demonstrate his ferocity. Aphrodite cursed himChe could never know love. At the peak of his success, Hecate sent the Eucharides, three female monsters, to destroy him. Trion fled to Delphi and consulted the oracle but refused to heed her warning to change his ways and make penitential sacrifices. The Eucharides trapped him at the mouth of the Strymon River, where it meets the Aegean Sea. There they drowned him.

End of quote. Dave discovers an unpublished novella by Thomas Mann based on the Trion story. More about that tomorrow.

Children’s Shame

As recounted earlier, when I returned to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, I was an emotional wreck. We didn’t have a name for my condition then; later the term Post-Traumatic Stress Injury would be coined. My marriage collapsed. The consequence I feared most was that I would lose my children.

That fear became a driving force in The Trion Syndrome. The protagonist, Dave, like me, is suffering from flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares, and irrational rages. He loses his job, his marriage crumbles, and his greatest dread is realized when his children are ashamed of him and don’t wish to see him. Or so he believes.

Among the worst things that can happen to a man, in my estimation, is for his children to be ashamed of him. Of all the factors that drive Dave toward suicide, that is the strongest. His salvation arrives in the person of a young man who is also his son, a child he didn’t know existed.

At the end of the story, Dave heads home to Maryland from his redoubt in Maine. He knows he has to face his past and come to terms with it. His most important and difficult task will be to face his children and come to terms with them.

Pity the Poor Writer

Some years ago, the novelist Carolyn Thorman told me a story:

A novelist and a brain surgeon were out golfing. The brain surgeon said, “You know, George, I think I’ll take off the summer and write a novel.” “Great idea, Henry,” the novelist said. “I think I’ll take off the summer and do brain surgery.”

The point, of course, is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, technique and hard-won skill are as essential to writing fiction as they are to brain surgery and take just as long to perfect. Yet so many readers seem to believe that we authors have a lazy and enviable life. But I’m here to tell you, as the old song goes, that it just ain’t so.

When I’m working at full steam, fourteen-hour days are not unusual. Yet, on average, each of my published novels took me fifteen years to write. I go through multiple drafts, trying to optimize the wording, organization, tone, and presentation.

Then comes promotion. That means endless presentations, readings, and book signings. My sense is that most writers are introverts—I certainly am—and constantly being a hale-fellow-well-met is hard work.

I’m luckier than most. Through a quirk of personality, I become an extrovert when you put me on a stage with a microphone. As much as I dread speaking in public and as hard as I work to prepare, some magic transforms me when the spotlight goes on. A different Tom Glenn emerges. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It means that it works.

All that said, writing is both the most difficult and most fulfilling work I’ve done. As I noted earlier, I write because I have to. I wouldn’t have it any other way.