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Posted on 1 Sep 2015 in Crime Scene |

Crime Scene: MARK DAPIN R & R. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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r&rDapin’s prose crackles and pops, at turns bloody and poignant, in this novel of the Vietnam War.

‘You know what?’ said Caution. ‘Nobody else in the world gives a damn whether you’re an Aussie or some other kind of faggot. There ain’t one single soul in America who knows the Australians are fighting in Vietnam. And, if you told them, they wouldn’t know whose side you were on.’

Fiction speaks louder than truth.

At a time when Australian politicians are increasingly intent on militarising history and forelock-tugging towards the Americans, it is worth being reminded of a view from the other side. Set in Vung Tau, South Vietnam, in 1967, Mark Dapin’s third novel is indeed a cautionary tale and a confronting one. It is only a year after Prime Minister Harold Holt increased Australia’s commitment of troops to the Vietnam War and underlined it in a speech ending with the words ‘all the way with LBJ’. If ever a phrase captured one country’s craven surrender to the foreign policy of another, this was it.

The story begins with a bang. Sergeant Caution ‘fired three shots into the corpse of Nguyên Van Tran. The bullets thumped holes through his chest, blowing rind from the bone’. Shooting a dead body whose ears have been removed is no crime, but morality is offended.

Vung Tau is a significant port in the south of Vietnam, situated at the tip of a small peninsula away from the fighting. During the war the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group was headquartered there, as were various United States military units, although it was principally popular as a place of rest and recreation for US troops. The influx of American and Australian service personnel meant that much of the local economy derived from meeting their social and sexual needs.

One American military policeman, Corporal John Ulysses ‘Nashville’ Grant, tracks another (Caution) with Australian MP Sean ‘Shorty’ Long in tow. Morality is the big issue. Nashville and Caution both hail from Tennessee, both are the products of dysfunctional families. According to Caution, they should be redneck good ol’ boys together — except they aren’t. Caution is a street-fighter; Nashville’s mother joins him up for a boxing program with the Police Athletic Club at the age of ten. Caution is a sadist, a man without a friend, who considers war is war and no rules apply. One could imagine him at My Lai. He is out of control and must be stopped.

Nashville is ‘a big handsome man with a broad, friendly face and a gentle, un-vengeful way’ yet appears to delight in being addressed as ‘a sick mother-fucker’ and applies the epithet to himself. He is worldly-wise by contrast with Shorty who (as a country boy from Bendigo) is likeable, gullible, gauche, a virgin and proud of it, and a bit slow. Yet both men have their own moral codes. Nashville expresses distaste for a war they shouldn’t be fighting and has signed up as an MP to avoid killing anybody. Shorty would prefer to be fighting his father’s war, sniping at a distant target, not looking his victim in the eye and shooting him in the guts. Except Shorty becomes complicit in Caution’s order to deliver a severe beating. Beat a baker’s boy on a bicycle on the pretext that he might be Viet Cong. Know thy enemy – but who is the enemy?

At Le Boudin Restaurant and Bar at the foot of the dunes, the air was cigarette smoke and the smell of spent men. Bored girls played dice games and smiled like skulls while GIs pawed their breasts, hanging on to keep from falling. The girls pushed away their hands, then coaxed them back.

Much of the action takes place at Le Boudin under the watchful eye of the mysterious pimp proprietor Moreau, who wears a foreign legionnaire’s cap but whose allegiance to any nation is questionable. Quyên, Tâm and Baby Marie are prostitutes – older, younger, youngest – and they (like their clients) have their histories and their dreams. Nashville thinks of Tâm not as arse and tits, like other girls, but a mouth and lips, the possibility of romance if things were different. Baby Marie dreams of love and marriage to a boy from Launceston, a boy whose service comes to an abrupt end and a quick flight home in a body bag. Loyalties can change:

Baby Marie ran out into the corridor. Quyên heard her sobbing, but Tâm was caught in other thoughts. She sat with the knife balanced between her fingers, the tip of the blade pressed lightly into her right thumb.

‘Could you do it?’ whispered Quyên. She pointed to Nashville’s soft white throat.

‘I could,’ said Tâm.

Dapin writes prose that crackles and pops, at turns bloody and poignant, shocking but with wry humour. Published locally at first but with American spelling – ‘ass’ not ‘arse’ – this boots-and-all novel is certain to be a runaway success.

Mark Dapin R&R Viking 2015 PB 304pp $32.99

Bernard Whimpress is an Adelaide-based historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is The Official MCC Story of the Ashes, 2015.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.