Imprisoned in the Sixties

Review of Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter, and Vine, by Tom Wolfe, and Winners and Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from a Long War, by Gloria Emerson. Gary Willis, New York Review of Books, January 20, 1977.

The Vietnam war returns in these books, not to haunt us but to amuse. Everyone who touches that war gets tarbabyized by it. Gloria Emerson manages to trivialize by her very concern. She feels it her duty to be outraged that a perfume is now called Charlie—once the Americans’ nickname for the Viet Cong. Wolfe celebrates America’s flyers over Vietnam in a long piece on “Jousting with Sam and Charlie.” The “Sam” of that title, a snaky missile seeking out the airplanes’ animal heat, makes dramatic appearances in Wolfe’s prose. But “Charlie” never does show up. These books are unconsciously aimed at each other; and both miss the target. They remind me of a “Doonesbury” strip from the war days. Phred the Terrorist is screaming up at the bomber pilots, calling them vicious monsters. Mean-while, in the clouds, Americans rehash the latest Knicks game.

Emerson’s book crawls along with Phred, from splutter to splutter, attributing every kind of malice to the colonizers, unable to understand that the war machine worked automatically, without malice, with a dutiful attention to technique. Wolfe’s prose soars with appropriate skill and moral obtuseness. You would never know from this chronicle of battle with the SAMS that his flyers risked death in order to deal it…

New York Review of Books