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Norman Mailer: Why Are We in Vietnam?

The blurb on my copy calls Normie the chronicler of our age, which has never even been remotely true. If you were hoping for Norm’s take on Vietnam, you are not going to find it in this book, as this book is nothing to do with Vietnam. In the introduction (written ten years after the book was first published), Norman says he intended to write a book about gangs in Provincetown and started off with an Alaskan hunting trip. That is where he also finished, for, as Norman succinctly points out, nobody ever gets to Provincetown.

So, just as so as you know. This book is not about Provincetown or about Vietnam. Well, that’s not strictly true for, though Vietnam first gets mentioned on the last page of the book, the Normster wants you think that the whole book is about Vietnam, because it is about an American attitude, an American style, which led to the Vietnam War. D. J., the hero, is about to go off to the Vietnam War. Of course, there is more. D.J. is also the Good American, naïve and sweet, but also has a Mr. Hyde side (and, in case you don’t get it, D.J.’s nickname is Dr. Jekyll and his buddy is Tex Hyde), the Ugly American who is now in Vietnam. And they go off hunting bear in Alaska with Daddy and, yes, that explains why America is in Vietnam – all the gun stuff, and shooting bear (or Charlie, it’s all the same) from helicopters and telling tall tales and being men.

It’s all narrated by D. J., the hip eighteen-year old, in a cool, hip, oral manner, when D. J. is high as a kite but, even back then, I didn’t buy the fact that this was one of the great American novels, as many suggested. Sure, it criticises Vietnam and the culture that led to it, without explicitly mentioning Vietnam till the last page (‘cept for the title) but that does not make it great. And now it reads like some sad old sack’s fake affectation, trying to be young, trying to be cool, trying, in is own words, to be hip and, sorry, Normie, it really is a bore.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons