Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg

Cutter and Bone, a novel from 1976, was the basis for the excellent movie Cutter’s Way. The story is set in Santa Barbara, California. An especially disturbing murder is committed. Bone (Jeff Bridges in the movie) is a witness but doesn’t get a good look at the killer. His friend Cutter (played by the recently-deceased John Heard) becomes convinced that the killer is a wealthy businessman. 

The characters of Cutter, Bone and Cutter’s common-law wife Mo make the story stand out. Cutter was severely wounded in Viet Nam and is now a fast-talking maniac. Bone is a good-looking deadbeat. Mo has her own problems. None of them are happy, but they’re interesting, somewhat in the way a car crash can be if you’re not in the car. 

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I promised to read this book as a favor for someone. It’s a novel, or a collection of interconnected short stories, about the Vietnam War. The author was an infantryman in Vietnam. The book is much admired (a “book of the century”, a Pulitzer finalist, etc.). 

Some of it seems to capture what it must have been like to be in Vietnam, especially the first chapter, which is excellent. But I wouldn’t have finished it, except for the promise I made. There is too much exaggeration. Too much of it is over-written. It’s repetitious. A description of childhood memories is unbelievably detailed. It reminded me of what Mary McCarthy said about Lillian Hellman: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

Here is one example, a quotation from a letter supposedly written to the author by a fellow soldier: 

“The guy wants to talk about it but he can’t … If you want, you can use the stuff in this letter. (But not my real name, okay?) I’d write it myself except I can’t ever find any words, if you know what I mean, and I can’t figure out what exactly to say.”

People writing letters in the 1970s either wrote them by hand or used a typewriter. In neither case were they able to write in italics. And I bet that nobody but an English professor would write “okay” instead of “ok” or “o.k.”. 

The Things They Carried is fiction that too often doesn’t ring true.  (3/22/13)

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone

Dog Soldiers is a novel about some misguided people who smuggle heroin from Viet Nam into the US during the Viet Nam war. Some bad guys try to take it away from them. The novel won the National Book Award in 1975 and was made into a very good movie called Who’ll Stop the Rain. A while back I watched the movie again and thought the book might be even better, or that it might better explain the characters’ motivations.  

Having read the novel, I think the movie is better, even with the movie’s altered Treasure of the Sierra Madre ending. It probably helped that Robert Stone was one of the screenwriters. Although the movie didn’t include some characters and incidents from the book, it included enough. In addition, the people who chose the actors did an extraordinarily good job finding performers who perfectly fit the roles: Nick Nolte as the modern day samurai; Michael Moriarty as the confused writer; Tuesday Weld as his troubled wife; and the three gentlemen who played the scary bad guys. 

I’m not sure why the book won the National Book Award. Perhaps because it captured the dark side of the 70s so well and portrayed some vivid and convincing characters. Here is a passage, not necessarily representative, but expressing a characteristic attitude:

“In the course of being fragmentation-bombed by the South Vietnamese Air Force, Converse experienced several insights….One insight was that the ordinary physical world through which one shuffled heedless and half-assed toward nonentity was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death….Another was that in the single moment when the breathing world had hurled itself screeching and murderous at his throat, he had recognized the absolute correctness of its move. In those seconds, it seemed absurd that he had ever been allowed to go his foolish way, pursuing notions and small joys. He was ashamed of the casual arrogance with which he had presumed to scurry about creation. From the bottom of his heart, he concurred in the moral necessity of his annihilation.”  (6/9/12)