THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Monday, March 24, 2014


Stephen Wright’s debut novel, first published in 1983, is a difficult one to categorize. The Amazon blurb describes it as being “sardonic, searing, seductive, and surreal…” It is certainly all of that.

It is also overwritten, with sentences that cover an entire page and paragraphs that cover more than a page. After reading about ten or fifteen pages, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to finish the book and after about thirty pages, I was almost positive that I wasn’t. In fact, I almost put it aside, but knowing that if I did I would never pick it up again, I soldiered on.

The book consists of vignettes, some as short as a paragraph and others that last as much as twenty pages. They alternate between a third person account of events that occurred during the Vietnam War and a first person account of events that take place in a large American city after the war – a war that never ends for the narrator, the book’s central character.

At first, I was put off by the long sentences, the long paragraphs, and the alternating settings. Eventually, however, I realized that while it was true that at times the book was chaotic to the point of being incoherent that what it was attempting to describe was also chaotic and incoherent. It was at that point that I was able to adjust to the rhythm of the book and found myself not wanting to put it down.

Walter Kendrick in his overall favorable review in the New York Times wrote, Wright’s “talent is impressive, though unruly.” And that “some of the excesses of the book can be ascribed to its being a first novel, mulled over for at least ten years. It tries to do too much – to describe the war, its aftereffects, the psychology of drug addiction and (most murkily) the role that green plants play in all these matters.”

Critic Nathaniel Rich in his review of the book wrote, “A good war novel forces you to visualize, in vivid detail, the horror and dysfunction of combat. A great war novel goes further – it makes you fear the horror personally.” By that definition, Meditations in Green is a great war novel.

I remember once reading that all war novels, by their very nature, were anti-war novels, the reason being that any faithful depiction of the horror of combat would have to leave the reader with a visceral abhorrence of war. Meditations in Green does that. Furthermore, it is more than a novel about the Vietnam War. In the tradition of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, it is a novel about the absurdity of war – any war. Those two novels contain some humorous moments, and so does Meditations in Green. But the humor in all three novels comes in the dark variety.

The Amazon blurb also says that many consider Meditations in Green to be the greatest of all the Vietnam War novels. I have always been partial to James Webb’s Fields of Fire and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and now the more recent Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. I always recommend them without reservation to other readers. I will also recommend Meditations in Green, but my advice for anyone who does decide to read it is that they stay the course. Don’t give up on it too early.

Is Meditations in Green the greatest Vietnam War novel? Well, maybe not, but it does belong in the conversation.

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