OCTOBER 14, 2011
IN A PERVERSE SORT OF WAY, I’ve always regretted missing Vietnam. Even though I did everything I could — including marriage, graduate school, and the Peace Corps — to avoid the draft, the big Nam was, after all, the formative experience of my generation. I’ve read most of the novels, waiting for the really heavy one to come along and tell me what I missed. Tim O’Brien’s peculiar Going After Cacciato probably came the closest, but still, that book just didn’t make it for me. And most of the rest chased that predictable, high-strung arc from starry-eyed recruit to stone-bitter vet, wearing a hapless humanitarianism on their sleeve.
One day in 1988 in a London bookstore, I stumbled upon Kent Anderson’s Sympathy for the Devil. I bought it because an acknowledgment inside mentioned Jim Crumley, a Montana hardboiled novelist I like, but little did I expect the fiendish trap waiting for me between the covers. When I dipped into the book on the tube home, I was suddenly stuck fast in a chilling, no-pest-strip of horror that hasn’t let me go to this day. When I finish books, I date them on the last page, out of some inexplicably daffy anality, and over the next decade this page acquired eight separate dates.
The novel’s central character, Sgt. Hanson, reads Yeats on his long-range patrols, from a paperback molded to the shape of his leg. But he is no ineffectual idealist, yearning to be back “in the world”; in fact, halfway through his story, he does his best to come home. When he gets there he can only loop off into inarticulate rages against the civilians who remain innocent of his brittle world:
“Getting cut doesn’t even hurt if the knife is sharp enough,” Hanson said, and he laid open a three-inch gash on the back of his own forearm, snapped the knife closed, and slipped it into his pocket. Blood seeped down the arm and in between the webbing of his fingers. He looked at the blood collecting on his fingertips and dripping on the floor.
Did you ever think about the Devil — about what a hard job he’s got? He does all the work and God just sits around and takes all the credit for everything. The Devil’s got to jump around and hiss and sneer, ’cause that’s the job he got stuck with. Go out there every day and deliver the pain. Deliver the pain for that slimy asshole God. And everybody hates him for it.
Hanson is a Green Beret who’s fallen hard for the God of War, and he and his pals — like any 18-year-olds given heavy weapons — are helplessly in love with the heady power of it all: “Hanson inhaled and smelt gunpowder and sweet blood. He could taste it on the backs of his eyeballs. He felt as if he had aligned himself with the fault lines beneath the earth. He could point his finger and tracers would appear. His gestures set off explosions.”
War, like sin, has a terrible dark attraction. Hanson’s pals Quinn and Silver are truly brutal, trained to be marauders in a land they don’t even want to understand.
Quinn was much bigger than Hanson. He was bigger than anyone else in the bar. His features were as small and blunt as his eyes. It was a face that could take a lot of damage and still function. The milky blue eyes seemed to have been set in his head just so he could look for somebody to kill. They were eyes that tourists on back roads have nightmares about-the kind of eyes that watch you from next to the Coke machine in that smalltown gas station, and keep watching you as the old pump rings and rings and rings up the sale, while you check the locks on the doors and wish you were back on the Interstate.
Quinn rarely smiled. When he did smile, it was not a comforting expression.
Hanson is only an inch removed from this abyss of massive transgression, but it’s a crucial inch. He enjoys war in the way Kurtz must have enjoyed his depredations in the Congo, sucked in by a lunatic logic and unquenchable vanity. The heart of this particular darkness is that — through Hanson — Anderson forces you to share in the enjoyment of war, seducing you with the cruel humor and camaraderie and expertise of killcraft. Sympathy for the Devil is often a very funny book, and the humor is a weapon in your seduction. Like it or not, you come to participate in this profane universe, with all its hellish moral ambiguity.
And then, in an ending unlike anything else in war literature, Anderson turns all this mad logic against you in a nihilist ordeal of such power that comedy and tragedy flow into one another, and you can only watch numbly as your values float away facedown in the river. It’s like being bought off by someone truly evil, coming to accept the horror of your corruption, and then having your corruptor turn and mock you for it.
Let me try to come at my fascination with this chilling novel in another way. There is a ragged little outpost of literature that I find I enjoy more than most other kinds. It seems to me to be the harsh breath of the modern world — and I apologize in advance if it also seems to be largely a male preserve. Some inhabitants: Raymond Chandler, Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Richard Ford (especially the magnificent and overlooked The Ultimate Good Luck). The books are morally serious, hard-edged, and unsentimental, dealing with silences and disappointment and inner strength. And rage. Often, but not always, they are minimalist in form. This harsh outpost is full of spare dialogue out of Hemingway, using crisp and indirect description that is often witty and vivid, and shocking for its abrupt, concrete metaphors. More inhabitants: John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, Conrad, some Graham Greene, even some Nadine Gordimer (think of The Conservationist). None of these writers live exclusively on this dangerous frontier, out among the Picts and wild men who paint themselves blue, but most of the ones I’ve mentioned have paid their dues out there. They know that the world is not benign, not easy, not pacific and, above all, probably not redeemable in any grand fashion. The men and women who must go down these mean tales cannot themselves be mean.
It’s a noble existential calling. Out on the frontier, our surrogate adventurers have to face the ugly and cruel on a daily basis, reinventing human decency from scratch. It’s a bleak vision, and the characters are often too willing to settle for less rather than more. Sometimes, it’s enough for them simply to know that decency might have been, but wasn’t.
Hanson patrols that terrain for us. He is as witty and vivid and frightening as any of the other characters from the authors I’ve mentioned, and though he never finds anything to plug the God-sized hole in the world, he offers a Hanson-sized presence.
I sent Kent Anderson a mash note some time ago because I liked his book so much, and we ended up swapping novels and letters. He told me of rare “sightings” friends made of his book on bookstore shelves here and there across the country, and of his fantasy (common to many novelists) that the publisher maintained a conveyor belt that ran from the warehouse straight to the shredder. His first reviewers had mistaken the book for one of those lobotomized war fantasies that come in noxious sequels — The Butcher: No. 23. “Morally repugnant,” one review said. I suppose it wasn’t all that surprising, given the book’s unflinching gaze at the megalomaniac attractions of power. But this weirdly aberrant reading consigned Anderson to the numbing hell of bloodlust fiction — all those lame, macho books with snakes and hard-eyed gunmen on the cover that you only seem to find on rolling shelves outside used bookstores. (Where do they sell them new? Porn outlets?)
These reviewers couldn’t have made it through to the end of the book. I won’t give away the bone-chilling details that mark the implosion of Hanson’s universe, but there’s no way to mistake it for a rabid, “feel-good” shoot ’em-up. Kent Anderson’s faithful readers — myself among them — know better. Of course, it took me a long time to go visit Anderson in person. After all, he actually had been a Green Beret, and I could never be quite sure he wouldn’t punch my lights out when he learned I had been an anti-war activist.