MICHAEL HERR : A Man of Few Words : What Is a Great American Writer Doing Holed Up in London, and Why Has He Been So Quiet All These Years?

IT'S BEEN AN unusually cold, wet winter in England. A wild storm swept in one day off the North Atlantic, flooding the streets, snapping trees, blowing down houses and killing 50 people. And now, with another gale on the way, people are beginning to mutter about the greenhouse effect. Michael Herr is appalled. At this point in his life, he wants peace and stability--not primordial struggles with overstoked elements.

Peace and quiet are what he was seeking 10 years ago when he moved to London. Unfortunately, Herr says, what he also found was a stagnant, "xenophobic," "predefeated" society, "relentlessly looking in the rear-view mirror. There's no energy, no joy. The entropy is breathtaking.

"I'm sick of life in the city," he says. "I miss the can-do spirit and positive energy" of America.

So, is he planning to move back?

Hardly, says Herr. It's a family decision. "I'm totally outgunned."

WHEN HERR'S "Dispatches" was published in 1977, critics hailed it as "a classic," "the best book to have been written about the Vietnam War" and "the best personal journal about war, any war, that any writer has ever accomplished." The language was an intimate, subjective blend of rock 'n' roll, terror and the war's peculiar drugged absurdities. It's a book that earned him a lasting--even suffocating--reputation.

Offers of screenplay and book deals poured in. But instead of following "Dispatches" with another blockbuster, this writer of classic American prose and American dialect fled to England, going on to fashion what must be one of the strangest careers of a contemporary American writer. He refused to grant interviews. He gave up his once-compulsive world travels and became a dedicated homebody and family man, trading drugs for Gauloises and acid rock for Mozart. He let his leisurely output slow to such a glacial pace that it looked as though he had fallen off the literary radar screen, publishing only one book over the next 13 years--a collection of short profiles of celebrities to accompany a book of paintings ("The Big Room")--and collaborating on two movies (with Stanley Kubrick on "Full Metal Jacket" and with Francis Ford Coppola on "Apocalypse Now"). Now, in May, abandoning at last his deep identification with the '60s, he's coming out with a new book. Set mostly in the New York of the '30s and '40s, it is a meditation on celebrity titled "Walter Winchell."

"Three movies, three books," says Herr. "Not a massive output."

Well, it takes a long time, I offer.

"Well, for me it does. I have my own demented quality-control system. I just don't like to send something out with my name on it until I think it's great--to the despair of my family and my bank manager and my accountant."

Herr is sitting in the cozy conservatory of a small South Kensington hotel while a heavy rain drums on the glass panels overhead. He is casually dressed in khaki trousers and a tweed jacket, his beard undisciplined and his thinning reddish hair--he is 50 now--awry. He's easy to talk to: curious, anecdotal, empathetic. ("People have been telling me stories all my life that I swear they never told anyone else," he says. "I must have an open face.")

Most often he appears to be an erudite international man of letters, serious, well-read, friends with everybody from Salman Rushdie to Hunter Thompson. Yet, at other times, Herr will take a lung-withering drag on his cigarette and say something like, "I mean, you know, it was crazy, man ," and the slow, melancholy emphasis he puts into man makes him sound, just for a moment, like some aging hippie, bypassed by life and history. Then a second later he'll be talking about his childhood and seem like an all-American-boy English major who was so enthralled by Ernest Hemingway that he modeled his early life on him--only to discover, as Hemingway did, that celebrity can be a curse.

"The aftermath of the publication of 'Dispatches' was really heaven and hell," Herr says, sitting under the conservatory space heaters and reflecting on his own encounter with fame. "The reception couldn't have been better, frankly--it couldn't have been more wonderful. It totally changed my life. But it also blew my cover. It was great for a little while, but then I wanted to stop it, and you can't turn that tap off so easily, particularly in New York."

Friends of friends invited him to dinner. Strangers wanted to meet him. Once, Herr recalls, he got a phone call from a guy who said he was standing in a phone booth in Nebraska in the middle of the night. "I could hear the wind blowing. He hadn't read the book." The caller said, "Time magazine says this. What does this mean?" Herr reversed the question: "What do you think it means?" "Oh, ho! Now that you're rich and famous you don't want to talk to people like me."

To Herr it seemed as if everyone wanted a piece of him. "Every time anyone fired a gun off in the bush anywhere on the planet, I'd get a call. I had to behave like a spy in New York to get any work done. I went unlisted." Despite numerous requests, Herr refused to do interviews. It would have been "unseemly," he says, given what the book was about, to introduce even "a whisper of celebrity into that. I didn't do any television. I did one or two print interviews very early on, before the book was published, and none afterward. Over the years, I've been very shy with the press. I'm extremely quiet. It has a lot to do with why I live here."

Herr made visits to London in the late '70s with his English wife, Valerie, first for the English publication of "Dispatches" and then for a National Theatre production of a play based on the book. And in 1980, he and his family moved to London to stay. Being an expatriate, he finds, has had its rewards: "It's done real good things for my language--to be able to look at America without being in it all the time, because sometimes that can be just like having your head inside a wind tunnel, and you really do feel battered by the aggression of American culture and the media."

On the other hand, he notes, "I haven't published any more than I did before." He spent 10 years, off and on, working on a book about rock 'n' roll, only to abandon it as misconceived. "I can't really talk about the book--I just find it so difficult," he says, "except to say it was almost a kind of vehicle, using rock 'n' roll for discussing American culture, a way of writing a personal memoir, rock 'n' roll being a metaphor for a period of my life from 1940 to about the time rock 'n' roll fell apart in the 1980s, almost in the way that Vietnam was a convenient way of writing about other things.

"Last September I kissed it goodby (and started) an unambiguous novel. I don't know how far along I am. I am very hard put (even) to say what it is about except to say it is about a friendship that spans 25 years."

His forthcoming book is yet another curiosity--a screenplay about the late gossip columnist Walter Winchell. The producers who commissioned it wanted a more black-and-white story about Winchell than Herr felt comfortable writing, so he decided to publish the screenplay as a book.

Certainly, he says, the book is a departure from the immediate present tense of "Dispatches," "but I wouldn't be too literal about the pastness of this. Chronologically, Winchell takes place in the past, but I think it is a very contemporary view. He is symbolically responsible for a lot of contemporary culture. 'Winchell' has to do with the loss of a sense of private life, the rise of a kind of promiscuous attention to all kinds of business not properly our business, a horrible dominance of entertainment in American life.

"I don't feel judgmental about what he did--it's what happened," Herr says. "He was there at the dawn of it. He was the medium that heralded these changes. Always, with a figure like that, there are things going on in the air, like a virus in the climate, and someone becomes a receptacle for those impulses."

"That he (Winchell) is barely remembered today, and practically unheard of by anybody under 40," Herr writes in the preface to the book, "only gives his story a larger shape than the mere rise and slide and fall of his actual life. If passing time has obliterated him, it has also given him the status of a forgotten ancestor. If people go around today treating themselves like celebrities because not to be a celebrity is just too awful, we may have Walter Winchell to thank."

IN THE SMALL kitchen of his South Kensington flat, Herr boils water for coffee in an electric kettle, and then we sit in the living room on facing sofas in front of a smokeless-coal grate. Thanks to Martha, the cat, the ends of Herr's sofa are literally in shreds. The place has a well-lived-in look, resembling a rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village, albeit one with high ceilings and tall windows overlooking a common courtyard.

Herr had a writer's instinct, even as a child in Syracuse, N.Y. "When I was really young, I was a voyeur," he says. "I trained myself to eavesdrop while looking out the train window and not miss a word. I used to walk around when I was 12 and follow people home. This would even involve taking bus rides with them. I just wanted to see where and how they lived."

At Syracuse University, he began writing fiction and film criticism for the college literary magazine, then edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Bored by college, Herr quit before graduation to spend a year bumming around Europe, where he received a letter from The New Leader, an old leftist magazine, asking him to be its unpaid film critic. After he was fired a year later ("I was liking all the wrong movies"), he applied for a job with Esquire, then edited by the late, legendary Harold Hayes. Although Hayes didn't hire him, they became friends, and Hayes threw him the occasional odd assignment.

In 1961, after spending six months in the Army Reserve to avoid the draft ("I did a good job. I was the only squad leader who wasn't relieved of his squad"), Herr went to work for Holiday magazine, where he spent 18 months before quitting to travel and write.

"I was really traveling nonstop, man, from when I was 18 to when I was 30--around the country, around Europe, a couple of trips to Asia. The longest I was home was six months, and the inevitable question that my Freudian-oriented friends back in New York would ask was, what was I running away from?"

What were you running away from?

"I don't think I was ever clear. I just wanted a lot of stickers on my luggage."

One inspiration was Ernest Hemingway. "When I was a kid, I was obsessed with him and made some pathetic teen-age attempts to imitate him in my life. And I reinvented myself as this outdoorsman, hard-drinking and everything with it. I dare say that influence put my foot on the trail to Vietnam. Which is why that book is about acting out fantasy as much as anything.

"I had always wanted to go to war. I wanted to write a book. It was something I had to do. The networks kept referring to this as a TV war, which I didn't believe it was. I sent a proposal to Harold Hayes. I was to write a monthly column, but once I got over there I realized this was not the way to approach the story. I wired Hayes. He said, 'You do what you want to do. Have fun. Be careful.' "

As Esquire's Vietnam bureau chief, Herr was given an honorary rank of lieutenant colonel, which, among other things, was great for helping him get rides on helicopters. "I'd say, 'I want to get back to Saigon. I want to go to Dalat. Is there anything in the air?' If there was a chopper going by, they'd radio it, and it would come down and take me."

A sociable, outgoing man, Herr quickly became friends with correspondents for the major newspapers and networks. Even so, much of the time he felt like an impostor. "One time the chief government press officer in Vietnam introduced the press corps at a reception for Teddy Kennedy by saying 'the gentlemen of the press and Michael Herr.' . . . I wasn't doing daily or weekly journalism. I was there for something else entirely. I was on a different frequency. I was just going off on long operations, coming back six weeks later and going into my room and smoking a ton of dope and writing notes. I never thought of myself as a journalist. I mean, I only wrote one thing the whole time I was there--there was really ever only one dispatch--so even the title is wrong, and it took me eight, nine years to write that blasted thing."

Herr had arrived in Vietnam shortly before the 1968 Tet Offensive, the biggest battle of the war. Unlike most other correspondents, who had to cover briefings and press conferences, Herr spent most of his time in the field with the troops. He was shot at in Hue, saw people in his helicopter die after being hit by groundfire and, armed with a .30-caliber carbine, helped repulse a Viet Cong night attack in the Mekong Delta.

It was the fire fights, he writes, that really messed with your mind. ". . . your senses working like strobes, free-falling all the way down to the essences and then flying out again in a rush to focus, like the first strong twinge of tripping after an infusion of psilocybin, reaching in at the point of calm and springing all the joy and all the dread ever known, ever known by everyone who ever lived, unutterable in its speeding brilliance, touching all the edges and then passing, as though it had all been controlled from outside, by a god or by the moon. And every time, you were so weary afterward, so empty of everything but being alive that you couldn't recall any of it, except to know that it was like something else you had felt once before. It remained obscure for a long time, but after enough times the memory took shape and substance and finally revealed itself one afternoon during the breaking off of a fire fight. It was the feeling you'd had when you were much, much younger and undressing a girl for the first time."

What sets Herr's book apart is the authoritative sense he conveys of the terror, ennui and ecstasy of what it felt like to be there. In a chapter about the siege of Khe Sanh, he offers a long series of conversations between two friends, a huge, gentle black Marine named Day Tripper and a little naive white Marine named Mayhew. The exchanges ring so true that one wonders, simply on a journalistic level, how he ever managed to record them.

He smiles. "They are totally fictional characters."

They are ?

"Oh, yeah. A lot of 'Dispatches' is fictional. I've said this a lot of times. I have told people over the years that there are fictional aspects to 'Dispatches,' and they look betrayed. They look heartbroken, as if it isn't true anymore. I never thought of 'Dispatches' as journalism. In France they published it as a novel."

But, Herr says, "I always carried a notebook. I had this idea--I remember endlessly writing down dialogues. It was all I was really there to do. Very few lines were literally invented. A lot of lines are put into mouths of composite characters. Sometimes I tell a story as if I was present when I wasn't, (which wasn't difficult)--I was so immersed in that talk, so full of it and so steeped in it. A lot of the journalistic stuff I got wrong."

Like what?

"You know, this unit at this place. But it didn't bother me. There is no shortage of regimental histories."

HERR KNEW HE'D had enough of Vietnam when, on an R&R; trip to Hong Kong, he started to hallucinate. So after a year at war, he returned to New York.

"I wrote most of the book in 18 months--everything but the first and last chapter. I had a great 18 months working and playing. A great time. I was really sort of high from that experience, and I sort of re-entered the scene in New York where everyone was talking about the war, everyone was obsessed with the war, but no one had been to the war and didn't even know anyone who had been to the war, and it gave me a certain amount of glamour, and I was high on that."

Then, in rapid order, Herr lost three close photographer friends in Vietnam: Larry Burrows, Dana Stone and Sean Flynn (son of Errol Flynn). Even now, more than 20 years later, this is hard for Herr to talk about. His speech slows down, and his voice turns grave. "I flipped out. I experienced a massive physical and psychological collapse. I crashed. I wasn't high anymore. And when that started to happen, other things started to happen, too; other dark things that I had been either working too hard or playing too hard to avoid just became unavoidable.

"It was part Vietnam syndrome. I don't know what the other part was. . . . (Actually), I do know what it was. It was my life. The end of my 20s. I had put myself into every extreme feeling experience. I was a hog for experience, and I think it was against my nature. I was a nice, middle-class, educated Jewish boy who as a kid had every nervous tic and allergy possible."

He leaves his seat on the living-room sofa and slowly begins pacing, head down, the floor creaking. "The first half-dozen years of the '70s were very painful. I was having these recurring post-apocalyptic war dreams, but they were all taking place in New York, and it was a jungle. Just going out in the streets required the cunning and skill of special forces. I was living in the Village. There was like a whole year when I didn't go above 14th Street.

"I wasn't supporting myself. I had help from Valerie, help from my father. I was writing, keeping a journal. I didn't want to get out of it. I was so attached to my pain. I was in and out of analysis. Valerie and I broke up, and I lived in New Hampshire for a year. I was really severely alone in New Hampshire, some really serious solitude, and then it just played itself out. When I came back, I brought the rest of 'Dispatches' with me."

Even before it was published, Herr knew he had written a powerful book. The doctrinaire right was offended by the way he ridiculed the platitudes of what he called the Saigon "Dial-soapers," the starched and self-deluded brass. Herr had described an audience with Gen. William C. Westmoreland in which the commander, noticing Herr's Esquire credentials, asked if he planned to write "humoristical" pieces.

His sentiments did not please the doctrinaire left, either. "Viet Nam was what we had instead of happy childhoods," he wrote. And leftists piled on, too, calling him a war freak enraptured by the ecstasy of battle. "I was deeply thrilled," Herr says. "I knew I had succeeded. I offended everybody."

He worked so hard on that book, Herr says, that every word is engraved on his brain. "A few years ago I had to go back and re-read 'Dispatches' for typos in the American edition. And even after all that time, it was so familiar to me that I wasn't really reading, I was almost reciting it to myself. I feel if someone really cranked me up, I could almost recite that book phonetically--like Japanese rock 'n' roll singers."

I'M GLAD YOU came here," Herr tells me at one point, "because that means I don't have to go there."

You don't like Los Angeles?

"Those drives that you take in L.A., those endless stretches. And for relief from that you go and see a few people and nothing human ever gets exchanged. It is a very, very weird place. I would love to go back to L.A. for a couple of weeks. But I wouldn't want to go back for a couple of months. I tell you, when I made the Walter Winchell deal, the one (contractual) condition I had that really held up the deal was that I could not be compelled to go to L.A. They could ask me to come to L.A., but they couldn't make me come to L.A."

He'd visited once before, after finishing "Dispatches" but before it had actually come out. "You get called to L.A. by producers," he remembers. "And by the time you get out there, they sort of forget why they asked you to come." And the result was, Herr ended up sitting in a room waiting for a phone call and feeling "like a schmuck. I have been alone in a lot of places in my life, but I was less lonely snowbound in the New Hampshire woods than I was in Los Angeles waiting for a phone call."

In 1977, Herr lived for seven months at the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard. "The first room I had, I looked up, and there was dried blood on the ceiling. I'd stand outside in the morning, and there would be this terrible heat and stillness in the air. You could hear the rustling of the palm fronds. The blackbirds wouldn't even fly.

"I never could tap in to the social life there," he says. "At the time I was living out there, no one knew who I was. And there is this phenomenon where you go to a Hollywood party, and people are afraid to talk to you because they don't know who you are.

"Some people gave a birthday party for me, and a rather famous producer came. He was seated on my right. A couple of times he turned and actually opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He couldn't talk to me. He couldn't talk to me. I didn't take it personally. I felt the guy had a struggle going on. If he had known 'who I was'--if my name had been familiar to him, as it was to become six months later when the book came out--I am sure we would have had a great chat."

It amazes Herr the number of people who have read "Dispatches" and still don't understand that he's not looking for any more wars or celebrity; he doesn't want to be on TV; he's had his 15 minutes of fame. But TV producers, Herr says, act as though they are the high priests of the new American religion: "It's television, man. It's like they are asking you into their temple, the real heart of the American faith.

"I was in New York in 1985 when they were preparing for the 10th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, which didn't strike me as a cause for widespread celebration, and someone from one of the networks called and said, 'We want you to go to Vietnam and walk around the old places. We want to do an hour special--"Michael Herr's Vietnam." '

"And I said I would rather observe this great anniversary in private. The guy was unbelievably aggressive and hostile. He demanded to know why I wouldn't take this dream offer: all the money they were going to pay me--75 to 100 grand, my name above the title. The idea of going on television anyway just fills me with dread and horror. But to go on and impersonate an old war correspondent returning seems really profane. Really profane. If they want to commemorate the Vietnam War, man, they can welcome the veterans home. Set up some apparatus to take the pain away."

HERR ENTERS A restaurant coming on like Ernest Hemingway, sweeping in out of a wet London day. He stands in the foyer, addressing the waiters by name, slipping out of his raincoat, answering inquiries about his health and following the waiter to his usual table, where he sits, back to the wall, holding mini-court with a two-olive martini. ("I don't have anything against wine, but I do admire the distilled grains.")

Over the meal, Herr talks about the difficulty of writing. "I write very slowly for a long time until I write quickly. The writing comes out of a space; it is hard to get into that space. You have to write yourself into it. You have to have done all your thinking so that by the time you start, it is pure energy. You write and look for the little clues and funny unexpected phrases.

"I am never sure how much of that time I spend is self-indulgence or bona-fide quality control. Some of that is obviously self-indulgent. When you are working for Time magazine, you can't really afford things that are real obstacles to writing--fear and dread."

It's not important, says his friend novelist Richard Ford, that Herr doesn't publish much: "It's not how much a person writes. It's how well he writes. In 'Dispatches,' there is that wonderful fusing moment in which reportage elevates itself to literature through the agency of imagination. There are certain people in your generation you feel are seminal to your view of the world--Ken Kesey, Bob Stone, Ray Carver--(who) tell you something you didn't know, and you see it, and it tells you something that is indispensable.

"Michael is a guy like that."

By his own account, Herr writes from 8 to 11 each morning. When he's done, he meets people for lunch. That and walking to the market are his only exercise. He spends the evening with his family or watches TV.

"I hate to travel. I hate to be away from my kids. I had to go to Paris for my book. I would call home. My daughter would hear my voice and burst into tears. It would tear me apart. I used to land in a strange city, not know a soul, not know the language and love it. Now I don't want to go anywhere, man--unless there's someone to meet me and take me by the hand."

Herr's attitude toward Hemingway has changed many times over the years, but he is still devoted to the work. "There was a time when I really tried to make a kind of declaration, a break with Hemingway, but in my heart, I think he was an extraordinary writer," he says. "Faulkner had greater range and genius, greater vision; he was a greater writer. But the thing that Hemingway could do that no one else could do--he makes it happen sexually, and that's a kind of shamanistic power. Everybody tried to imitate him. He became a kind of cartoon of himself. He was mad, he hit his head too many times, yet he always had the tragic view--and the purity of that writing."

Despite his disdain for Hollywood, Herr has mostly warm memories of his film collaborations--especially his work with Stanley Kubrick, another American poet self-exiled in Britain. Kubrick, he says, "is fabulously, fabulously smart and intellectually fearless. And, to put it mildly, very stimulating. He lives by the telephone. And if you are essentially playing with your kids and watching TV at night because you are too tired to do anything else, and the phone rings at 9 o'clock and it's Stanley--(by the time) you get off the phone at midnight, you hang up with a black ear, a sore throat and a mind squeezed like an orange, like someone just came and took all the vitamins out of your system."

In 1985, when Herr was re-writing the screenplay for Gustav Hasford's "The Short-Timers," which would become "Full Metal Jacket," Kubrick would send a driver to Herr's house every afternoon. "And I'd give what I had written to the driver and Stanley would read it, and (that night) we would talk. It was really a great way to do it. I got immediate feedback. I was so energized."

"I'd say, 'Well, what did you think of that scene?'

"And he would say, 'Michael, I don't think I have the language to tell you how much I hated it.' "

Herr is well aware of what is sometimes said of him, that he wrote one great book and that was it: "He's missing in action."

"I hear those whisperings," he says. "I hear them quite often. But they don't seem to have much to do with me. I find it really hard to think, at almost 50 years of life, of trying to live up to other people's expectations. I understand how most people whose ambitions have not been fulfilled would not believe this, but mine were. And I seem to be motivated by other things. I just feel as if I'm on a different metabolism now."

HERR LIVES with Valerie and their two daughters, Claudia, 12, and Catherine, 7, midway between Queen Victoria's great marble-and-bronze Hyde Park memorial to her consort, Prince Albert, and the ancient pink-and-white riveted girders of the Albert Bridge. The neighborhood streets consist of block after block of three- and four-story row houses variously appointed with wrought-iron fences, brass knockers, multiple gables, slate roofs and chimney pots.

In one sense he loves London: It is "the last of the great cities. They really respect privacy here, (in contrast to New York, where) they don't even know the word is in the dictionary." But the British are also "really, really, really complacent. To get anyone to come and do anything--a plumber, a painter, a carpenter--it's a nightmare. You call them up, and they start to whine and lie--'My uncle's hip went out and the parrot's sick and the car wouldn't start.' They snivel, but they are belligerent with it, a kind of belligerent whining. And it is a sound heard often in the land.

"Everybody over 40 is really living in World War II. Almost not a night goes by that you don't see Hitler on television. Last summer, we got back from America one night, and I turned on the television, and he was on two of the channels at once. I knew I was back in England."

What he'd really like to do, Herr says, is "come back (to the United States) and live in the country." He owns a five-bedroom home in Upstate New York. The problem is, Valerie really loves England.

Herr sighs. "It's complicated. She lived in America for a long time. I met her there; she was working for my agent in New York. My wife is sort of a middle-class girl who left England when she was 20 or 21 because there was nothing here for her--the barriers were too high--and she's come back in more attractive circumstances, and she likes it. She loves it that her daughters are going to these wonderful schools. We are in a really fortunate position here. We meet a lot of interesting people. And she loves England. So she is a little frightened to leave here and go live in America in what she quite rightly considers to be the middle of nothing."

Still, it is painful. Herr is an American to the bone, and his daughters are growing up British. Catherine speaks such wonderfully enunciated, proper upper-class English that he says his American visitors like to simply sit and listen to her talk.

"I feel that my family is really happy here," he says. "I prefer to be there , but I don't mind being here. I don't see any point in going (to America) if they're not going to be happy. I feel ambivalent about just about everything. If my feelings aren't mixed, I don't really trust them."

WE SAY GOODBY on a street corner. The afternoon is growing dark and the winds are picking up. Herr walks down the sidewalk, raincoat flapping, his shoulders hunched against the wind--a man trapped in a place in which he'd rather not live by a sense of responsibility to his wife and daughters.

Yet it's a trap he's chosen. "I really like family life," he says later in a call to Los Angeles. "When you describe it to other people, it sounds unbelievably boring, but it's not to me. It means much more to have children than to have something that is read after my death."

He still thinks, sometimes, that he ought to publish more, "but it doesn't seem to be the overriding motivating force of my life. I sometimes have thought that it would never really matter if I never published another book. Sometimes I'm amazed that I ever finished ('Dispatches')."

And besides, he says, repeating a remark by Hemingway about keeping one's craft in perspective: "Books are for saps."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°