A VERY FEW YEARS AGO we were deploring the dearth of fiction dealing with the Vietnamese war. Now we see that, in fact, our greatest military disgrace (if we discount the shaming of the American South, 1861-65), has given us a much richer literature than, certainly, did World War I and II and Korea (who can recall even one serious novel about the Korean war?). This is not the place to make lists, but in fiction at least James Webb's Fields of Fire and Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato touch the real madness and frantic ignorance that earlier fictionalizers of earlier wars have never done. To carp: Stephen Crane, who wrote our best Civil War novel, wrote well but was not there; and Ernest Hemingway, our greatest warrior-novelist, dropped in and out of wars like a fan at a European soccer match at which the other fans are, predictably, nasty. Until recently, our best depiction of war has been not fictional, but journalistic.
Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War was by far the best non-fictional account of the Vietnamese debacle: He was there, a Marine officer; he fought, he tried (and failed, as did everyone) to understand what was going on: that good men died while administrators, civilian and military, diddled around with body counts and hearts and minds.
What Caputo saw and remembered must have been the inspiration for his very impressive first novel, Horn of Africa. He dedicates it to a dead friend "whose very existence was a reproach to the violence and absurdity of this age." Violence and absurdity? This age? Let's not carp again, about whether we have the ironically hubristic right to find our time worse than others; but of violence and absurdity, the latter has been with us for decades now, usually coupled with the former: When Meursault, in The Stranger, fired those five gratuitous rounds into an Algerian he scarcely knew, Camus marked for us in 1942 the beginning of an era of violence with no source but absurdity.
What's worrisome is that Meursault was a cipher, a patsy, whereas his modern fictional counterpart is infinitely more dangerous, more knowing -- or so to his own mind he is.
Caputo's rebel, in Horn of Africa, is called Jeremy Nordstrand, a misfit from the northern Midwest (yes, Hemingway country) who had gone to Vietnam to become a Warrior: upper-case W, carrying with the name all possible connotations of samurai, martial-arts adept, and -- especially -- Nietzschean Ubermensch. (He does not just read, he meditates over, Beyond Good and Evil, figuring himself, in his undergraduate way, as Dionysian and all his civilized enemies as Apollonian -- and how many thousands of undergraduates have failed Philosophy 112, or whatever, for such simplistic interpretations?). However, here he is, this ursine sadist, presiding over Caputo's novel, eager to destroy friend and foe to achieve complete physical and mental mastery of himself, to prove that he can touch the Extreme, existentially as well as essentially.
Jeremy tolerates the narrator, a fellow veteran from 'Nam called Charlie Gage, though Gage is (to Jeremy) weak because he is capable of seeing at least two sides to a question. The third member of the adventure Jeremy cannot tolerate at all: this is Patrick Moody, an English colonial officer cashiered for an episode of official -- and justifiable -- brutality some years before in Oman.
Caputo as journalist knows the Horn of Africa quite well (well enough, certainly, to disguise its geography so that not even hours with East African maps could catch him out). His triadic psychodrama is so full of beautifully done scene-description of dust, sand, burnt-out-villages, feculent wells and flatulent camels, that one often loses sight of the complex -- yet very conventional -- plot. A crazy but wily CIA agent called Colfax, a "Virginia aristocrat" (why are they always Virginia aristocrats?), out of favor with the Agency because of his record in Vietnam, decides to foment, train, and -- through his enlisted triad -- lead a rebellion of Bronze Age nomads (Caputo calls them the Beni-Hamid, but I suspect he is thinking of a particularly savage Ethiopian tribe called the Danakil, from whose practice of sexual mutilation of enemies even Caputo almost turns away in revulsion), against a pair of mutually antagonistic and crudely Marxist rebel factions. Colfax is operating without the sanction of the Agency: Nordstrand, Gage, and Moody are risking their lives in the arse-end of Nowhere for a mad, illicit scheme that any intelligent man should have been able to see through. (Only Gage, a journalist himself, has an occasional glimmer that Colfax is barmy.)
Anyway, off the three go into the desert to bring their military skill and modern weaponry to one Muhammad Jima, chieftain of the Beni-Hamid, a singularly ruthless band of Moslem fanatics in a remote and relentlessly uninhabitable country called Bejaya (Eritrea, perhaps, or Chad?). Nordstrand does not really care about their ostensible mission of covertly protecting America's interest in Africa; one moment he is posturing as Natty Bumppo among the Indians; the next as a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia, whom he naively fancies the Arabs did really revere. In Khartoum he pays homage to "Chinese" Gordon, whom even the English regarded as insane. His methods are so barbaric, his physical courage so formidable, his madness so patent that the Beni-Hamid take him to be inspired by Allah. They follow him; they even initiate him into the tribe, in a rite from which the squeamish reader will recoil -- as he will from much of this novel, so unflinching is it in its scrutiny of how horribly men can behave once out of sight and sanction of "civilization."
Jeremy, our modern Kurtz, comes to grief, as does the mission; and only Gage is left, like Marlow, to tell the tale. And full of violence and absurdity, as Caputo had promised us, it is.
I wish there were space to speculate why so many post-Vietnamese novels have gone so far in this frightening direction -- Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers and Michael Mewshaw's The Toll and Land Without Shadows come first to mind, along with Jim Harrison's splendid Legends of the Fall. But I must content myself now with saying that Horn of Africa must represent some sort of apogee in this subgenre. If this new sort of fiction is a kind of literary expiation, or at least an attempt to chronicle, with no blinking, man's root bestiality and ideological idiocy, then Caputo is your man. Against his Jeremy's Nietzsche, one can hold up perhaps only Rilke, with his "Who speaks of victories? Survival is everything." But Caputo doesn't leave us even that consolation: to survive isn't much if a rotten world is the only place in which to do it. Horn of Africa is a hard, cruel, cynical novel -- and a good one.