Just when you think it is safe to forget about the Vietnam War, something forces it back into consciousness. Perhaps it is former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey's nightmare of having to relive, live on CNN, the horror of a night 30 years ago in the Mekong Delta. Perhaps it is a book like Daniel Buckman's "Water in Darkness."
Both the news stories and the book take us back to the heart of darkness, reminding us of what happens when young men are sent into a state of nature, where a mistake is usually mortal for someone and where death and injury do not begin to sum up the risk.
Most men who went armed as soldiers to such places and survived came home to reintegrate successfully with the civilized, moral society from which they came. Like Kerrey, some went on to do great, good things. For a tragic few, such as Kerrey, the inquisition that had met most Vietnam veterans immediately upon their return came back much later to stir terrible private memories and force them to public light.
Those are not the kind of soldiers Daniel Buckman writes about in "Water in Darkness." His characters come from a terrible place, go somewhere even more horrible and then return home with the worst of both worlds inside them.
Jack Tyne is a young soldier just mustering out of the contemporary U.S. Army, still unable to get out of his mind the thoughts of his father, killed in Hue during the Tet Offensive. He has other memories too, of a cruel stepfather, of a pathetic mother, of the ugliness of Chicago's meanest streets, where he had his early education.
When he leaves the service and returns to Chicago, he meets another ex-soldier, a Vietnam veteran, whose situation could not be called post-traumatic stress disorder only because the trauma has never ended. Once a police officer, Danny Morrison has been stripped of his badge for cocaine abuse. It is not the only abuse in which he regularly engages.
That the two of them seem destined to link their fates does not seem tragic in this novel. It seems grindingly inevitable. One never gets a sense that either could have avoided becoming what he has become.
Therein lies one of the weaknesses of this book. In its narrative line it offers almost no relief from the terrible gravitation force of bloody nature and criminal malnurture. It is not only that it is grim; it sees no possibility of anything but grimness. It is Cormac McCarthy without the humor, King Lear without Kent or Cordelia.
Like most weaknesses, though, this one is closely related to a strength, in this case the powerful linkage between the state of nature outside us and the state of nature within.
The other weakness in "Water in Darkness" also comes with a virtue. Buckman needs to learn the pleasure of understatement. Take this passage for example: "The waiter was nobody special, just a Greek with a gambling problem who loved the turn of the cards and the thrill of not knowing what would happen next the way a john loves getting naked with a faceless whore."
This book is littered with dead pigeons in gutters, snot and blood and excrement. The sun never shines. Anywhere. On the other hand, when Buckman reins it in just a little we get this bit of marvelous dialogue in which Morrison is talking to a man who wants him to collect a debt:
"I don't want none of your ghanies working with me."
"They don't want to work with you. They still love life."
"I have my own ways," Morrison said.
"You now have your collar back. You are whole again."
"I was never broken."
"The things we tell ourselves."
That last line has an economy that says more than all the dead pigeons and excrement in the world.
"Water in Darkness" begins as Jack Tyne is in a C-130 cargo plane returning to the United States from Honduras. It is a bit confusing at first to be thrust without cues into a scene of the kind of cruel camaraderie that sometimes men together in groups think of as wit. But as the book reveals itself, the reader keeps going back to that moment. It is peace and yet it is not. It never is. That, finally, is Buckman's message. And he does not seem to care in the least whether you like it ornot.