Saturday, 2 July 2016

Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietman - we've all been there: Michael Herr 1940 - 2016

When I was about 18, I was at boarding school  on Canada's Pacific coast.   It was a highly privileged experience - a small school of about 200 kids, located deep in the great Douglas Fir and redwood rainforests of southern Vancouver Island, on its own small bay, with its own dock, with views down to the Cascades, and with much if not most of the teaching staff living in situ also.  Students from around 60 countries attended.   Classes, held in common rooms or 'dayrooms', were tiny, often under 10 people.  'Freedom' was considerable, and felt real - you could take a tent and disappear off into the forest, or, if you were a driver or had a friend with a license, you could check out a college van and head off into Victoria or elsewhere.

Like all schools, like boarding schools elsewhere, this school was a tremendous laboratory for young people making themselves, and, shy kid though I was, I did this too.  I thought I wanted to be a climber, so I scrambled up cliffs, got stuck, got the shakes, and then tried again.  I suddenly realised that books were not just interesting to me, but were cool and that knowing about them could make the reader cool, too.  Perhaps.  I moved from reading Tolkien to reading Joseph Conrad.  I'd been given a recording of the farewell concert of The Band, just before I headed to this school, and listening to The Last Waltz, borrowing metal and prog rock and New York art-punk music from friends and roommates transformed my sense of music.   And I read Dispatches.

Dispatches has to be one of the great books about war.  Assembled by Michael Herr from his musings and discussion pieces for Esquire and Rolling Stone, it was published in 1977, nearly a decade after Herr had left Vietnam.  It offers no real narrative, it does not push a clear political message or position on American involvement in Indochina, but it gives an extraordinary sense of a particular experience of the American side of the war.  As much a piece of New Journalism (or even gonzo) as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dispatches has since soaked into so many realms of Anglophone popular and high culture as to be a kind of ur-text, Herr a Foucauldian 'founder of discursivity'.   Every Hollywood image of the cynical hack in the Third World, of the world-weary grunt, of the loopy nerdy staff officer or idiot political spokesman, surely owes a debt to Dispatches.   The fiction of Robert Stone and Don DeLillo might not have been possible without Herr's book.  And the language, too:  Dispatches is surely one of the great conduits of black American street-talk, or jive, into English-speaking culture generally.  The after-effects of Herr's book leach on into films - those of Oliver Stone, or Walter Hill, or Martin Scorsese, or Michael Mann, or Katherine Bigelow.   But few of them have the courage not to lapse back into the moralism or the feeble humanism of which they purport to be the excoriating critiques.  Herr does not make this mistake - he's as clear about the bliss of war as he is about the terror, and he reminds us that war goes on happening because enough people out there enjoy it and think it's useful. 

Herr never wrote such a fine book again.  What need, after such a masterpiece?   I read just yesterday, on the webpages of The Paris Review, that he has died at the age of 76.   Latterly, it seems, he was uncertain as to the value of the work he gave to the world, and became reclusive.  This makes me sad: this was a great writer, who makes a lot of our preening Booker- or Pulitzer- or Goncourt-winning literary egomaniacs nowadays look like fools and pygmies.  I know I'll be reading Dispatches long after I've forgotten about the Zadie Smiths and the Colm Toibins and the Michel Houellbecqs.

Here is the Paris Review obituary:

In Memoriam: Michael Herr, 1940–2016


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