"It was midday when we filed out the door into Vietnam," writes Tracy Kidder. "The heat was impressive. It made me catch my breath. I walked across the asphalt runway, not knowing where I headed." Before he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Soul of a New Machine, Kidder was in many respects just another middle-class kid who found himself shipped halfway across the world to help stop the spread of communism.
Because of his Harvard education and ROTC training, he served as an intelligence officer in an outpost that was far from heavy combat but of some strategic importance. In My Detachment (Random House, $24.95), he details his efforts to win over the men in his command, a rag-tag group of enlisted slugabeds and rabble rousers unaccustomed to the discipline he expected. Early in his tour, one of them reminded him of the lawlessness he faced: "We can shoot you any time we want, Lieutenant." Kidder also harbored serious doubts about his government's involvement in the war and worried obsessively about the possible scorn from his peacenik friends back home. The heat of this powerful memoir derives from those personal conflicts, rather than from the one being fought with bombs and bullets.
"I wanted to share my older friends' outrage at this war," he recalls. "But I really did know some things they couldn't know, things I could not say. I knew how close you could get to this war -- I was never more than a few miles away from a village being bombarded or a platoon caught in an ambush -- and yet have it remain an abstraction, dots on a map. I also knew how to be confused."
There are more thorough accounts of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, but you'd be hard pressed to find a better book, fiction or otherwise, about the challenges of retaining one's humanity amid the chaos and carnage of war.
In 2004, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Micah Garen and his girlfriend, Marie-Helene Carleton, were shooting a documentary about the looting of that nation's archaeological sites. On Friday, Aug. 13, after Carleton had gone home to New York, Garen was filming in a crowded market when a suspicious vendor realized that he wasn't Iraqi. "The moment hung like dust clouds from the feet of children rushing into the fracas, then fell as he seized on my words, his face erupting in rage and excitement. Jabbing his finger in the air at me, he began shouting, 'FOREIGNER!' " At that moment, Garen's life -- and Carleton's -- took an awful turn. American Hostage: A Memoir of a Journalist Kidnapped in Iraq and the Remarkable Battle to Win His Release (Simon and Schuster, $25) explains the ordeal that followed.
The memoir alternates between their differing sides of the story. Garen offers an insider's look at what it's like to be kidnapped and held for ransom, all the while fearing for his life and for that of his trusted translator: "In the morning, a new guard, a boy who could not have been more than sixteen, came to watch us. I sat on my mat with my legs crossed and my shirt off, facing forward. He perched at the entrance looking at me, keffiyeh covering his face, then raised the AK to his eyes and sighted it at my chest."
The chapters written by Carleton reveal an entirely different kind of horror, that of knowing that your lover is being held prisoner on the other side of the globe and feeling powerless to do anything about it. Fortunately, however, she proved to be incredibly resourceful, enlisting the help of everyone from FBI hostage negotiators to "Good Morning America."
It's clear from the outset that her efforts were successful. But even in the absence of any real suspense, the authors' nuanced accounts of their psychological rollercoaster rides make their book consistently compelling.
Bad Girls and the Boys Who Write About Them
Campus Sexpot was the name of a licentious pulp novel published in the early 1960s. Its author, Dale Koby, taught English in the small Sonora, Calif., high school that David Carkeet attended, and it turns out that not every sordid element of the book was entirely made up. Carkeet's memoir, also titled Campus Sexpot (Univ. of Georgia, $22.95), describes the fallout from having a small community's erotic secrets exposed through a thin veil of fiction.
An accomplished novelist in his own right (his most recent novel is The Error of Our Ways), Carkeet flits back and forth between quotations from the original Sexpot, which he reproduces in boldface, and his experience of reading it at age 15: "The reader of page 2 is gratified to learn that no change has occurred in Linda's body since page 1. Once amply endowed, always amply endowed."
There are some genuinely funny moments here, most of which derive from Carkeet's formal, critical analysis of the lurid book. "Behind every porno novelist is an aspiring real novelist," he writes, "and the flashes of art are unintentionally poignant. Don parks the car. Linda leans forward invitingly. What will happen now? 'Her skirts rustled with the peculiar sound of starched petticoats.' This magnificent disharmony comes right out of the real world, where small moments of humanity intrude on our lust."
At times, Carkeet's prose reads like an additional audio commentary playing along with the original novel. "How can you describe sex," he asks, "in an age when the most relevant nouns and verbs for doing so are forbidden from publication?" It's hard to find fault with such a charming and frequently hilarious book, but he picked an easy target: How hard can it be to poke fun at a purposely sleazy, straight-to-paperback novel? But the connections Carkeet sees between his world and that of the novel turn his personal story into something far bigger. Only the best memoirs, like Campus Sexpot, reach beyond the author's own experiences and address bigger coming-of-age issues familiar to us all.
Motor City Memories
I learned everything I knew -- or thought I knew -- about Detroit from that city's great artistic ambassador, Eminem. But Paul Clemens's Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir (Doubleday, $23.95) sets the record straight and exposes the cultural conditions that have transformed that city over the past few decades. The book details the effect of white flight on the community at large and, more specifically, upon the author's working-class Catholic family.
In Detroit, he reminds us, "those persons frequently identified as 'minorities' were, in fact, the majority inhabitants of the city." His father -- a brilliant mechanic and the book's most memorable character -- refused to buy into his colleagues' shared racist outlook, and he didn't join the swarm of white families beelining to the suburbs. "White Detroiters, by definition," Clemens writes, "were those who had not taken part in the flight, and so on the whole were more comfortable with the possibility that they might someday have to exercise the other Darwinian option: fight. My father had no interest in either. He would stay put and mind his own business, showing an abiding faith in the logic familiar to those deathly afraid of dog bites and bee stings: don't bother them and they won't bother you."
Sadly, vast sections of this meandering memoir will bore anyone not fascinated by the history of Catholicism in Detroit, but amid the occasional Yoda-like syntax -- "White I certainly was" -- you'll find some bold and brutally honest prose. The author discusses in detail his conflicting racial views, citing Malcolm X's autobiography as an influence and yet harboring revenge fantasies toward the "man who happened to be black" and who raped his bride-to-be. Compared to Malcolm X or even Robert Jensen in his recent The Heart of Whiteness, Clemens only scratches the surface. To his credit, however, he doesn't seek easy answers to his own problems or to our persistent social ills.
The Push and Pull of Race
Julia Scheeres's Jesus Land (Counterpoint, $23) may very well be the feel-bad book of the season. It's so depressing that at times it may constrict your breathing, yet also so expertly crafted that you likely won't need a bookmark. I read it in a single sitting, except for the devastating epilogue, which I saved for later so as to live within the book's spell for a few more hours.
Scheeres, who is white, grew up in rural Indiana with hardcore Christian fundamentalist parents who never spared the rod, especially with her two adopted African-American brothers. She suffered through horrendous barrages of emotional and physical torments, including repeated sexual assaults by her brother Jerome and her mother's absolute indifference: "She has never told me she loves me, or drawn me to her in an embrace. Never touched me with tenderness whatsoever. When I was little, the closest she got was spitting in a tissue on the way to church and scrubbing my face with it, and I craved this attention."
At its heart, Scheeres's memoir is about her relationship with her little brother David and the racial difference that alternatively pushed them apart and brought them closer together. After their parents sent him away to a reform school in the Dominican Republic, she got in trouble with the law and soon joined him. There, they endured further physical torture and brainwashing. You can think of Jesus Land as "Mommy Dearest" retold using some elements of slave narrative. There are no happy endings, but Scheeres writes with true courage and provides her readers a valuable service by exposing what can happen when institutionalized racism and religious zealotry meet. *
Andrew Ervin is a frequent contributor to Book World. His short story "All Happy Families" recently appeared in the anthology "Chicago Noir."