Monday, April 18, 2011

Up Country with Nelson DeMille

It's been a full month since the Southwest Florida Reading Festival and I've been remiss in not sending a huge shout out to my co-worker and friend Jessica Girlando for the outstanding job she did in her third or is it fourth year as the the one-man Author Selection Committee. Not to take away from Kathleen Wells who singlehandedly has lined up all the fabulous young adult - Ridley Pearson - and children's authors, from R. L. Stine to Jeff Kinney.

My pal Maryellen and I used to do this same job back in the day,  before social media completely changed the way we interact with our author idols. One thing, however, will not change. The bigger they are, the nicer they are to deal with. Go figure! David Baldacci? A gem. Janet Evanovich? Wow! A self published Florida writer with one unknown book? Oy!

This year we were privileged to have Nelson DeMille, a man who was so laid back that he refused the mantle of "keynote" speaker. This guy didn't even mind mingling with the public in the restroom! Do you think he thought no one would recognize him? He stood for tons of photos, appeared on two panels, but it was the evening before the festival that really tells you what kind of a man he is.

A Vietnam veteran whose book, Up Country, I'm going to tell you about today, he appeared alone at the Evening with the Authors dinner only to find his table completely full. As he sat and looked around, he realized that some of the faces were familiar. In fact, rather than repeat the whole story, let me have him tell you himself from his own newsletter:

I love DeMille's work but am fluent in his later novels with the wonderful John Corey. After hearing him speak, however, I couldn't wait to go back ten years to Up Country, especially in light of my renewed interest in my youth and the Vietnam War in particular (Matterhorn, The Lotus Eaters). This novel does not disappoint and is the perfect antidote to running up and down Route 41 in season.

Lt. Paul Brenner is not the smart ass that Corey is, but you still get the sense of a guy who uses humor to defuse situations when he's right on the edge. Believe me, there are plenty of opportunities for him to do this as Brenner travels, under the constant surveillance of the suspicious General Trang, from the southern former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, to the north in search of a witness to a murder that happened thirty years ago during the height of the Tet Offensive.

In typical government fashion, Brenner is given the least amount of information possible; given just enough to entice him out of retirement, to search for the North Vietnamese soldier whose letter to his brother, uncovered after all this time, recounted a cold blooded killing of a young American lieutenant by an American captain. Who were they? Is the witness still alive?

I guess I've read one too many espionage stories because when Brenner was met in the hotel bar on his first night in country by a gorgeous, much younger American  business woman, coincidentally fluent in Vietnamese, my thought was, "oh boy, look out."

Rather unrealistically, Brenner and Susan Weber fall into a relationship that they too quickly call love, (he has a woman back home - don't they all?) and she inserts herself into his investigation under the pretense of helping with the language. All I could think was CIA. Why didn't Brenner get it? Or, maybe he did and he was using Ms. Weber as much as she was using him?

Their easy camaraderie is a precursor to the fabulous relationship between Mr. and Mrs. John Corey. Tension runs high as they try to outwit the nasty Trang, keeping one step ahead of his goons. Along the way DeMille treats us to a gorgeous description of the countryside and the people of Vietnam who, amazingly, don't seem to hate us for the terrible, unforgivable damage that we did to their country.

 Like many veterans, my friend Don included, DeMille's return trip to Vietnam seems to be a necessary, cathartic experience and that mysterious country, unknown to so many Americans, is the perfect setting for this politically disturbing, suspenseful and absorbing read.

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