IN THE SHADOW OF THE WALL
Edited by Byron R. Tetrick
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The actor Richard Dreyfuss once said of the Vietnam Memorial that "this memorial is not about the war, but about the wounds." Similarly, Byron R. Tetrick's anthology In the Shadow of the Wall is not about the war, but about the way it is remembered in our society by those who fought in it and those who didn't. Tetrick invited a number of authors, some of whom, like Elizabeth Ann Scarborough and Joe Haldeman, served in Viet Nam and others, like Michael A. Burstein, who were too young to know the war and its divisions at home first hand, to write stories about the war and the wall.
Orson Scott Card examines the life of a non-combatant in “50 WPM.” In this story, the wall serves as a means for the narrator to pass along his personal history to his son, telling how he was lucky enough to have had a mentor in Vietnam who watched out for him, even at the expense of his own life. At the same time Card demonstrates what a waste the war was, in the death of Samuel Keizer, it also points out how it served to turn other people’s lives around and give them meaning.
“Long Time Coming Home” has a portrayal by Vietnam veterans Elizabeth Ann Scarborough & Rick Reaser of one GI who has clung to his individuality after his death in Vietnam. The story is one of the most emotionally successful stories in the book as Nick Amato’s spirit remains with his friend, Woody Johanson, for thirty years after Vietnam, eventually finding peace. It is troubling only in the way it portrays an interesting afterlife which implies that only soldiers killed as a result of the war are eligible for the afterlife.
The Wall forms the basis of a far future superstition in “The Pilots” by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. Although the United States and its civilization are more forgotten than the Romans, our works are seen and feared by the culture which had arisen upon our ruins. While waging a war of their own, one of the pilots of the far future comes upon the wall and a ghost of the Vietnam era which can explain to him the purpose of the Wall and how its became manifest with so much power.
“Wallgate” is Laura Resnick’s attempt to deal with the memorial using humor. Unfortunately, the humor doesn’t fully work in this tale of the Vietnam memorial, as well as other walls around the world, disappearing. The fact that the brunt of the jokes is a thinly veiled Clinton administration not only dates the piece upon its appearance, but also seems to beat a dead horse two years after the Bush administration has taken office.
In Michael Belfiore’s “What’s in a Name,” the Wall becomes a portal back to the war, giving Zack a chance to meet the father he never knew and learn a little more about the circumstances of his own life. It also shows the ambivalence felt towards the Wall by a generation which never knew Vietnam except as a chapter in an history book, even if their lives were directly touched by the war.
Robert J. Sawyer revisits his world of Hominids in “Black Reflection.” Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal visiting our world travels to Washington in the company of Mary Vaughan. Upon seeing the Vietnam Memorial, Ponter begins to question Mary about its purpose and learn about the strange human preponderance to wage war. Sawyer is unapologetic about his anti-war position, and “Black Reflection” points out the absurdities of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, placing it in opposition to many of the other stories included in In the Shadow of the Wall.
Barry N. Malzberg also takes an anti-war stance with “Getting There,” in which soldiers discuss their likely fate and realize that long after they are killed in action they will be memorialized, nothing more than names of the dead. Although each of the names carved on the wall has a story behind it, for most people, they are simply the names of men and women who gave their lives in Vietnam, only a single step from anonymity, the strength of their memory only in their shear quantity.
“Obsessions” focuses on the obsessions of “Skull”, a street girl who hooks and creates imaginary men, as well as one of those me, the ghost of a Vietnam vet who wishes to see his name on the wall. Leah R. Cutter creates a grimy world of nanotechnology and street life in this world where the characters don’t understand the purpose of the wall, merely seeing it as a mass of graffiti in which people’s names are immortalized and protected by nanotech.
Perhaps the best-known science fiction chronicler of the Vietnam War, Joe Haldeman, contributes the poem “names in marble” to the anthology. The strength of the poem comes from the bureaucratic sterility with which a Vietnam veteran sees the memorial. Although he should be seeing the names and personalities of long-missing friends, he only sees the most officious record of their passing, names without stories, as noted in Barry Malzberg’s “Getting There.” Haldeman also points out how hidden the Wall is, just as Sawyer noted in “Black Reflection,” raising the question of how much memory this memorial is supposed to record.As the title suggests, Ralph Roberts uses “Second Chance” as a means to redeem the United States’ actions during the war. In a story of wish fulfillment, a Vietnam veteran and armchair general gets the chance to run the war as he sees fit.
Scott Crenshaw has the ability to bring the ghosts of his father and other Vietnam vets back from the dead in “Blood Bone Tendon Stone” by Michael Brotherton. Although Crenshaw has always kept his ability secret, it has now leaked out to a powerful and sinister organization which has decided to recruit him. Although Crenshaw thinks of himself as being in a bad monster movie, it would be more accurate to describe the story as a spy film, with Crenshaw playing the unlikely protagonist. His chorus of ghosts providing both the comic relief and Crenshaw’s father leads him into strip clubs, and also the knowledge and abilities he needs to deal with the situation in which he finds himself.
Mike Resnick & Michael A. Burstein team up to write “Reflections in Black Granite,” about two comrades from Vietnam, one of whom died and the other survived. As the story progresses, the survivor’s guilt at still being alive begins to eat away at this very existence while his comrade takes on a new life of his own. The path of the story is telegraphed somewhat, but it still manages to have an effect in its portrayal of the sense of guilt many survivors, not just of the war, must deal with.
Paul Allen’s character Ricky fills in the stories of the names of people on the Wall in “While the Band Played On.” As if in response to the criticisms of anonymity noted in Haldeman’s poem and Malzberg’s story, Allen provides the stories of those killed whose tales are not known to those who loved them. Ricky’s story is a tale of hope that the memory of those on the Wall can be as individuals, rather than just as names.
“The One-Half Boy” shows a parent trying to come to terms with the death of his son in Vietnam. Nick DiChario shows how although the man believes learning of his son’s sacrifice and how his life ended is the most important thing in the world, it is also a selfish need which does not need to be gratified just because we think it should be, no matter the cost to others.
Michael Swanwick focuses on the dichotomy of the war against a practically Gatsbian lifestyle at home in “Dirty Little War,” made all the more poignant by the fact that the United States is on the brink of a war against Iraq which may result in the same type of split. For most of the story, Swanwick manages to keep the war and civilian life separate, although in a way that does not allow the reader to forget that they are happening simultaneously. Nevertheless, this separation works well to drive Swanwick’s point home when the two worlds do actually collide.
Byron R. Tetrick is not only the editor of the anthology, but also the author of the penultimate, and longest, piece in the book, “The Angel of the Wall.” The story of a mysterious blind woman who touches the Wall and passes messages along to suffering survivors seems like a fairy tale to Andy, who is dealing with his own guilt by drowning it in a local bar. When his best friend's wife asks him to intervene in his friend's obsession with the Wall and the "angel," Andy begins to realize that he may be able to find absolution for the tremendous guilt he has felt since his best friend, Danny, died in Vietnam. Just as the Resnick and Burstein story dealt with survivor's guilt, so too does Tetrick's, although Tetrick's story carries a greater resonance, perhaps because Tetrick was in Vietnam, although there is no indication that anything in the story is autobiographical. Along with Scarborough & Reaser and Swanwick, Tetrick's story is one of the strongest in the anthology.
David Lange sees the Wall as a summons for the Messiah to bring peace to the world in his poem “Willing the Child to Return,” which ends the anthology. In his afterward, Lange notes that he wrote the piece around 1982, shortly after the Wall was erected and long before it had overcome controversy to make it the memorial so many in In the Shadow of the Walls perceive it as. Of course, comments made in some of the stories demonstrate that some controversy over Maya Lin’s design and the location the Memorial was placed remain so long after the memorial was erected.
What nearly all of the stories in In the Shadow of the Wall have in common is the cathartic nature of the wall of veterans who visit it, no matter how unwillingly. The strongest stories are those which include either a political message or a strong need for the catharsis the wall supplies without becoming maudlin. It seems from Tetrick’s afterword to “The Angel of the Wall” that the anthology was conceived as a vehicle for that story, but the stories Tetrick bought are mostly strong and shed new light on America’s ambivalent, and changing, relationship to the Vietnam war and its veterans.
|Orson Scott Card||50 WPM|
|Elizabeth Ann Scarborough & Rick Reaser||Long Time Coming Home|
|L.E. Modesitt, Jr.||The Pilots|
|Michael Belfiore||What's in a Name|
|Robert J. Sawyer||Black Reflection|
|Barry Malzberg||Getting There|
|Leah R. Cutter||Obsessions|
|Joe Haldeman||names in marble|
|Ralph Roberts||Second Chance|
|Michael Brotherton||Blood Bone Tendon Stone|
|Mike Resnick & Michael A. Burstein||Reflections in Black Granite|
|Paul Allen||While the Band Played|
|Nick DiChario||The One-Half Boy|
|Michael Swanwick||Dirty Little War|
|Byron R. Tetrick||The Angel of the Wall|
|David Lance||Willing the Child to Return|
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