Comments and Reviews

Likeable characters, action plot add up to enjoyable war novel

By GREG LANGLEY
glangley@theadvocate.com

Books editor

My Dying Breath

By Ben Reed

(North Charleston Books, $18.99)

A trio of Cajun boys heads off to the Marine Corps in 1969 and makes it through the tough boot camp only to land in Vietnam and immediate combat.

The three, Tuck Richard, Donnie Boy Hebert and Johnny Robert, are all from the area around Eunice. Tuck and Donnie Boy are best friends saying goodbye to a carefree boyhood and stepping forward to serve their country. Johnny, a carefree former LSU football player who suffered a career-ending injury, meets the pair on the way to boot camp. The three bond and form a unit that will endure on the battlefields of Vietnam.

Told primarily in the voice of Tuck, the story follows the three from their boot camp life to the end of their tour in Vietnam. Reed fills in the lives of his characters as they leave boot camp and go home to visit their families in Acadiana, then ship out for Vietnam.

Along the way Tuck acquires a girlfriend, Anna, and the reader gets to know the families of the young men. The action really begins when they arrive in Vietnam. They're in a battle the first day "in country" when the plane carrying them arrives.

"THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!

"Incoming!" shouted the gunnery sergeant."

The airport is under mortar attack. Within 10 minutes the trio are combat veterans. As the story follows the Marines to a remote firebase near the border with North Vietnam (Demilitarized Zone or DMZ), Reed introduces a parallel storyline featuring a bloodthirsty North Vietnamese army colonel and a young Vietnamese man who has lost his entire family and blames the Americans. A third storyline reveals what is happening to the Marines' families and friends back home in Louisiana. The storylines gradually converge.

After the somewhat overlong developmental chapters, the book becomes more plot-driven with plenty of combat action.

In one sequence, Tuck and Donnie-Boy accidentally run into a force of North Vietnamese soldiers. They have to run. Tuck has some problems.

"Slipping twice, he lagged 20 yards behind Donnie-Boy, who sprinted up the hill with a graceful gait.

"After another minute, Donnie-Boy stopped and looked back. He saw Tuck fighting the muck. An NVA soldier was sprinting up the hill and closing to within 15 yards of his friend. Donnie-Boy dropped to a knee, aimed and fired.

"The shots surprised Tuck; he slowed and looked back at the soldier, curled into a ball of pain. He swung his rifle around and shot from the hip. The rounds slammed into the man's back."

The battle scenes are realistic, sometimes bloody and hard to take. The characters speak in a combat vernacular that is peppered with profanity. And Tuck, the narrator, is gripped with nearly paralyzing fear each time he is in battle. Yet he can function despite his fear -- he's a trained Marine.

Reed's characters are well-developed, and you find yourself caring what happens to the three Cajun men as they are placed in harm's way. There's a villain who is easy to hate, the good folks back home and the big question of whether any of the three will survive their tours.

Reed is a good storyteller who does a nice job of keeping the plot flowing. His style is concise, but he offers some nice literary touches such as this piece of foreshadowing that takes place as Tuck is visiting Anna before he leaves for Vietnam:

"A crow landed on a nearby fence post with three stands of straw in its beak," and then "Anna heard the startled caw of the crow, which dropped one of its three straws and flapped off into the growing darkness."

Does it mean that two will die and one survive? Or does it mean that two will live and one will die? Read on to find out. And enjoy.

The Advocate Newspaper
Baton Rouge, LA
01-19-03