Saturday, May 18, 2013

Review: Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers is about a group of black teenagers who enlist in the Vietnam War because they have little to no hope for a good future back home. Vietnam doesn't prove to be a much better option, they soon find out, and they face an experience that, if it doesn't kill them, scars them psychologically for the rest of their lives. Myers wants to make a point that wars are fought by youths, and he does this by convincingly writing from the perspective of a youth. These youths lose their lives, and their sanity, in a chaotic environment, where unseen mines explode or snipers pick them off from a distance. These are kids who are still learning about themselves and the world, and now they face the sad realization that they may not get a chance to experience life in its full.

The novel is told in the first person from the perspective of Richie Perry. Perry leaves his mother and younger brother to join the war effort because he can't stand living on the dangerous streets of New York, and college isn't an option. He briefly befriends a nurse named Judy, but before any love interest sparks up the two are shipped to separate separate parts of the country. However, Perry finds a close companionship with his squad mates, who are also black. His closest friend is Peewee, one of those teens who seems to know everything and really wants to kill some congs, man. He's a prickly fellow and looks for fights with anybody who throws a racial slur his way. Also in the squad are Johnson, a large and quiet young man; Jenkins, the most nervous of the group; Brunner, who is very religious; and Lobel, a lover of movies who comforts himself with the belief he is just living out a movie. Their squad is headed by Simpson, who only has a few months of service left and warns the newcomers not to get him killed.

Fallen Angels begins just before the Tet Offensive, when the U.S. seems convinced the war is almost over. Because of this, Perry and his squad face long moments of tedium, waiting for somewhere to go and something to do. They watch a Julie Andrews movie again and again. Their nightly patrols are their main source of action, but even these turn up nothing. Is there even an enemy out there? The answer is yes. On one patrol they return only to trigger a newly-planted mine. The enemy seems like a ghost. Perry is fired at from the dark, and he fires back into the darkness. Most of the battle sequences are quick and chaotic. They involve a lot of retreating. Myers wants to avoid making battle seem exciting in the fun sense of the term. Any excitement comes from fear. Out in the wild, these young soldiers are vulnerable and there's nothing to protect them.

Perry is a very reflective person. The death of a squad member haunts him for a long time. He also thinks about his other squad mates, his friends and family back home, and the enemy. He wonders what it's like from the perspective of the vietcong, which is only natural. Perry wonders about God. It's clear that he believes, as he often prays to himself, but there is an uneasiness about the mention of God. Brunner is the most open about his belief, and this openness causes friction within the squad. Is this friction due to guilt, or is there a sense that God has failed these young men?

Perry also reflects about race, which is an important theme in the novel. The blacks in the platoon stick together. These blacks feel isolated both at home and in the war. At times they are deliberately placed in the most vulnerable positions of a formation, and they feel a strong sense of injustice. They are afraid some white sergeant will not hesitate risk their lives for a promotion. However, the racism isn't directed at just blacks, but the Vietnamese as well. Every Vietnamese citizen is suspected as a vietcong, and they are referred to derogatorily as congs. There's a sense of distrust even with the South Vietnamese troop, and at one point this manifests itself as a near showdown between them and the Americans. Race seems most striking during times of war or intense conflict. We see this in our post-9/11 world where Muslims and Arabs face discrimination because of the actions of a small group of radicals.

If I have one misgiving, it is that the novel sometimes feels detached from its experience. There is a certain lack of attention to details that would otherwise help the novel feel more life-like. Sometimes the novel feels more like chaotic first-person shooter video game than a realistic war narrative. Some writers have a talent of bringing details to life. Cormac McCarthy is one of the best examples among modern authors. Myers does have talent, though. There are plenty of moments of great power that do bring the experience to life. The novel makes effective use of raw emotion. Men panicking. Men crying. Men in mortal terror of their lives. I cared about Perry and his friend Peewee and wanted them to survive, and when they come into trouble later in the novel I was afraid for them. The fact is, these are just a bunch of kids. They're innocent, and they're suddenly being thrust into one of the worst experiences life has to offer: war.

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