Monday, March 21, 2011

Dragon Lady

By Gary Alexander
Available in early April at

In Gary Alexander’s vision of The Great Beyond, the big questions about life never get fully answered.

Joseph Josiah Joe IV doesn’t know whether he’s in Heaven or Hell, and he doesn’t waste time trying to figure it out, simply referring to it as The Great Beyond. “Thanks to the psychological games They play with me,” he tells us in the satirical Vietnam War book Dragon Lady, “one day it’s one, the next day the other.” Wherever he is, it’s got San Diego weather and non-stop elevator music.

Important to the reader is the perspective that living in The Great Beyond gives our storyteller, who long ago was Private Joe of the U.S. Army, serving in the relative safety of Saigon. The year is 1965, a time when big-wig Americans (at least fictional ones) were naïve enough to think they could pinpoint the very day the North Vietnamese would be forced to capitulate, sending home the relative handful of GIs in-country before too many were killed.

Private Joe’s youth had not been dominated by worship of baseball players, rock stars or astronauts. Rather he was fascinated by the comic strip Terry and the Pirates, and his lingering boyhood crush had been on its mysterious femme fatale, the Dragon Lady. In Saigon, Joe comes across a beautiful woman who, in his still-boyish mind, becomes his real-life Dragon Lady.

Positioning the narrator in the afterlife gives Dragon Lady a third dimension that lifts it above a simple boy-meets-girl story. Mai is a prostitute and possible Viet Cong spy who consorts with Joe’s superior officers. Whatever she is, Joe is smitten with her and, all logic aside, wants to take her home. We know from the biography he’s given us from The Great Beyond, that’s not going to happen. But his love-sick pursuit of his impossible dream is entertaining.

Along the way, Joe and his sidekick Pvt. Zbitgysz lead a life of high-jinks, performing “alternative materiel” requisitions for their incompetent bosses. In that way and others, Dragon Lady aspires to be the Catch-22 of Vietnam. But it’s less ironic, and it’s no put-down to say its humor is more like that of the movie Good Morning, Vietnam or the TV version of M*A*S*H.

As a mortal, it takes Joe a long time and considerable growing up to learn the apparent truth about Mai. In The Great Beyond, new questions about her arise, enlivening Joe’s hum-drum existence and giving him something to live (?) for.

Until recently, I had not read a Vietnam book in decades. Now I’ve read two this year, the gripping Matterhorn, which takes us into the brutal world of a Marine combat unit, and the wistfully humorous Dragon Lady. Other than sharing a complete disdain for the mid-level officers whose egos and ambitions cost many American lives, the two couldn’t be more different. But both have something to say about the folly of war and, particularly, our Vietnam misadventure.

Click here to link to Dragon Lady.

Bill Furlow

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