Tom Hollaran, the narrator and principal character in "Hollaran's World War," had a theory: If you got drafted, you went off to the Army. And if you were married, your wife waited for you to come home. So when the good folks at the draft board fingered him, Tom dutifully marched off to Vietnam for a year. His wife? Well, let's just say that as a theoretician, Hollaran's batting .500.
He's been back in the States for about a year now and he's mad as hell. Mad at his (now ex-) wife for taking off with some bozo named Wolpenheimer while he was slogging through Mekong Delta rice paddies with a rifle and a pack. Mad at Wolpenheimer. Mad at his boss at Jersey Sheet & Tube for banishing him from an office job to the Siberia of the company warehouse. Mad at his racist, goldbricking, draft-deferred ("old lady and two kids") commando of a warehouse supervisor. Mad at his old high school buddies who "stayed in college or quick got married and had antidraft babies or joined the Air National Guard and spent six months drinking beer in Florida." Mad at the three-piece-suit set for sending him over there in the first place. Mad at family, church, the world.
His life is a shambles, an 0.0 on the grade point of life -- "Civics F, Economics F, Marriage F, Veteran's Bonus Points, Zero."
The shrinks -- he's seeing two of them -- are sending him conflicting signals. Dr. Pyle, his VA shrink, is not real big on introspection (but he writes a mean prescription to fend off Hollaran's anxiety attacks). Dr. Rhinehart, his civilian shrink, is from the nondrug, deal-with-your-feelings, try-to-remember school -- a methodology severely circumscribed by her inability to remember Hollaran's name.
Adrift in this sea of analysis, Hollaran assuages his fears (real and imagined) with a self-help concoction of old Glenn Miller records, six-packs and Dr. Pyle's "blue dots" -- an aural/chemical McNamara's Wall that all-too-briefly stems the complexities and uncertainties that daily infiltrate the war zone raging in his head.
Eddie Sadowski -- Hollaran's pal and roommate -- is a former helicopter crew chief whose chopper got shot down in Vietnam, leaving him with a gimpy leg and an addle-brained sense of retribution. For Eddie, there are no complexities, no uncertainties. It's all clear-cut: American males are divided into two groups -- bozos and nonbozos: "A bozo, according to Eddie, is an American man who produces nothing, fixes nothing, has no particular skill or aptitude, yet is powerful and prosperous." Among their swollen ranks Eddie numbers bankers, lawyers, consultants, PR flacks "and all government workers except mailmen." Eddie holds them personally responsible for sending him to Vietnam. The only thing Eddie detests more than a bozo is a "true bozo." A true bozo, in addition to suffering from the panoply of bozo ills, managed to wiggle out of going to Vietnam.
On one level, this is a funny story of Hollaran and Eddie, the Vietnam vet Odd Couple: Hollaran's the aspiring chef who prepares restaurant-quality meals for dinner; Eddie's idea of a well-rounded meal is a fast-food burger washed down with "vegetables" -- V-8 juice and vodka -- followed by a long night behind the locked door in the blacked-out basement of his house clanking away on a mystery project that is to serve as the linchpin in some vague plan to square accounts with the bozos. It's cleverly done and good reading.
But as the story unfolds, a second theme emerges. Beneath the madcap patina, there are two alienated, confused and profoundly angry young men who, as they see it, have returned to a nation that, in washing its hands of its Vietnam war, pretty much washed its hands of its Vietnam warriors as well. In this light, Hollaran's travails and Eddie's retributive schemes take on a different cast. The episodes remain superficially "funny," but in the manner of Yossarian's plight in "Catch-22" or Frederick Exley's in "A Fan's Notes," and the daffiness that characterizes the opening chapters takes on sobering nuances.
This second theme is a slippery slope for any writer to negotiate, and in the hands of a novelist of lesser skills, it could rapidly degenerate into a moralistic creed. There is no degeneration here. Author Tim Mahoney captures this theme in a subtle and convincing fashion and skillfully melds it with the rest of the novel.
In the closing chapters, Hollaran slowly comes to the realization that all his life -- from his schooldays at St. Veronica's grammar school to his nights in the Mekong -- he's marched to the beat of someone else's drum. And when things went badly (which was a lot of the time), he mistakenly lashed out blindly at the drummers rather than the lock-step marcher. With this growing awareness, a glimmer of light appears at the end of Hollaran's Vietnam tunnel.
It's been a harrowing journey and a long tunnel, and Mahoney's captured it well in this sad, funny, touching book.