Girl By the Road at Night
(2010) by David Rabe, a highly praised playwright and author of several other novels, is a slender (228 pp) meditation on loneliness making a break for connection in the unlikeliest of places — the periphery of a terrible war,  by two unlikely, but perhaps very common, characters — Private Joseph Whitaker, brand new to the war at the Bien Hoa airbase base, and Quach Ngoc Lan, always Lan, a pretty, low-end whore under the eye of Madame Lieu, working from a cheap car wash where the GIs bring their vehicles; getting a two-fer as might be said.

Perhaps I’m just loosing my appetite for the fiction of marginalized characters, or perhaps I prefer them farther from home, such as George Simenon‘s gangsters and low-lifes in war time Paris. What I do know is that I disliked Joseph Whitaker almost from the first pages as he ‘flushes a bug down the toilet,’ to his desultory expedition to a Washington D.C. peace rally, whether to beat up some hippies, or be talked into deserting is not quite clear in his mind.  Pussy would seem to be at the top of it — his ex-girlfriend’s, now married, a hippie-chick he confronts, and later, for most of the book, Lan’s.

Not very interested.

Not that Rabe doesn’t have a way with language.  His playwright prose is sharp, and earthy.

“I no want you talk me, pig.”
“Okay, Hello.”
“You stupid, you ‘stand?”
“I know.”
“You number goddamn fucking ten.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m tellin’ you.”
“Hello.”
“Fuck-face.”
“No sweat, GI.”
“‘Cause you’re jus’ shit, you understand me…”

And so it goes. [Except I’ve never heard a Vietnamese capable of a word closing ‘m.’ ]

Nice descriptions, too. “Her eyes are ancient; they are strange and exact as olives.” Or,  “Sleep has left his head full of dirt and sand, a blowing dust…”   A very evocative image of the Old Man of the Moon weaving invisible threads all over the world, “down the trails and rivers, from city to forest” between those who will one day meet. “Lan felt her threads running to the air.  The wind had them.  No old man anywhere knew of her.”  And Whitaker, himself, connected, ” is debris, he knows, a leaf that arrived here on a wind and now, thank god, the gusts that brought him have known enough to return.”  Lovely stuff.

We learn of the Vietnamese association with the spirits of the dead:

“Free of his labors and his worries, would he not float about, hovering often at her ear? Unseen by others, overheard by no one, they would have secrets; his spirit would love her best.  …. The body’s possession of the spirit continued, she knew, until the person was in the grave beneath the dirt, listening for the sound of certain prayers the family murmured in the home to call the spirit back.  She looked at the body warmly and with wonder, for her father was still inside.”

But these interesting passages are buried by the “You like me do prick you.  Maybe long-time.  All right.  Do fuck-fuck all night.”   or, “No do fuck-fuck. I sleep?” Or with the petty and dreary details and minor rebellions of army life.

Whitaker meets Lan and somehow they connect.  She prefers him to others and when she shuns a couple of ARVN soldiers things take a bad turn.  Whitaker never manages to be anything but stupid, wandering into off-limits parts of town at the risk of his life, staying out after curfew. I didn’t like him any better at the end.  He sends a photo of Lan, meant to be on her father’s altar of ancestors, to his brother, with pornographic intention.

As a picture of GI life for many during the war against the Vietnamese it is pretty accurate — from my brief exposure in Subic Bay, the Philippines, and Yokosuka, Japan.  All of us were stupid some of the time and some of us were stupid all of the time.  Whitaker seems to be among the latter.  Even his feelings for his recently dead father and for the disappeared Lan, which connect him to me briefly, don’t budge the needle of interest.

As a tough guy rendition of two little people rolled over by history this might make a good, grainy black and white movie.  As a ‘brilliant meditation on disillusionment,   sexuality and masculinity’ as the cover flap tells us, it doesn’t make it.  I’ll say this, though, you won’t forget the raw edges of the war even with the nearest bullets just a threat in the night and the only bodies being brought in already in bagged.

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