Tuesday, May 22, 2007

DISPATCHES by Michael Herr

Dispatches is former Esquire writer Michael Herr’s book about his experiences in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The book chronicles Herr’s many in-the-line-of-fire experiences there, as well as his conversations with American soldiers.

At first, it appears that Herr is not writing chronologically, but jumping around with little rhyme or reason. Eventually, though, it becomes clear that things are relatively chronological. From there, the book settles into something of a pattern whereby Herr chats with combat-tested young grunts, does some drugs, listens to some rock music and quotes some song lyrics. This repeats, countless times, until the end of the book.

One of the most excellent things Herr has done here is capture the dehumanizing, personality- and behavior-changing aspects of war. Many of the soldiers Herr talked with had developed eccentricities or mental illness from their experiences. The overall effect is that the reader is left with a profound sense of the many crazy things that people did in Vietnam.

Dispatches is a piece of New Journalism, which was en vogue in the 1960s and 1970s. In this style, people write nonfiction using devices from literary fiction, including using scenes rather than historical narrative and using conversational dialogue. Herr does this and more, writing in a "cool", scattered, borderline incoherent style.

Herr was either not well-acquainted with the semicolon, or he eschewed its use in an attempt to strike another blow for New Journalism. He often strung complete and independent sentences together with commas, sometimes three and four at a time. Somewhat distracting also is Herr’s constant use of the word "spade" to describe black people, which is at the very least mildly derogatory, and at worst overtly racist.

It is rather obvious to draw the parallel between Herr’s writing style and the nature of the Vietnam War: both were disorganized, scattered, and lacking a coherent flow. On the one hand, this purposeful stylistic selection on Herr’s part helps to underscore to the reader what Vietnam was really like. On the other hand, it is used as an unchecked license not to write according to any accepted guidelines, and even to use words like "spade" needlessly.

Herr’s book was well received upon its release, but it does not hold up so well now. Herr used songs, lyrics and drugs to try to stretch the boundaries of what writing can be, but it does not quite work. Stephen King is another writer fond of frequently inserting song lyrics into his writing. The problem with this is, the songs and lyrics that have special meaning to the author may not have any significance whatsoever to the reader. So while the author may be accurately recreating even the background details of his experiences, as far as drugs and music are concerned, the reader typically cannot fully relate, if at all.

Herr certainly got plenty of mileage out of his Vietnam experiences – he also contributed to the screenplays for the films Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.

Certainly, Dispatches is not as good as the gushing reviewers on the jacket would have us believe; at least, not any more. If, at the time it was published, it truly did offer revelatory insight into American culture, it has not held up so well. Yet Dispatches remains valuable and interesting, particularly as a journal of American culture in wartime Vietnam, but less so as a piece of New Journalism.