Ghosts in Vietnam" by James Carter is a short novel covering a few very long days in the lives of nine American soldiers and their Viet Cong counterparts. The physical world they must endure is suffocating and terrifying: for the Americans in the jungle ("Light barely penetrated Vietnam's heart, and when it did, it only revealed decay…the unmistakable stench of shattered bodies left to stew in the absurd humidity."); for the VC in their miles of underground tunnels ("The stuffiness in the cocoon of soil was almost unbearable…a world devoid of beauty and color…Such an existence was worse than slow starvation.").
In an earlier novel by Carter, an American Civil War soldier states that survival is taught with a brutal hand and that loyalty only grows from necessity. In this story, set a hundred years later, both survival and loyalty are tenuous. The Americans are a rag-tag collection. They despise each other and everything and everyone they come in contact with in Vietnam. The VC have an even greater inner conflict as their superiors consider them totally inferior and entirely dispensable. These are men with only one thing in common: fear and loneliness. The only American capable of escaping total self-obsession believes in the justice of God; the only VC is a pathological ideologue who believes solely in violence and victory.
Carter writes of the lush vibrant green of the rice paddies; of the shadows that are everywhere -- in the middle of the day, in the middle of the night; of a small brush of red turning brown where there has been blood clinging to a leaf of a reed. He writes of the ghosts in the trees. And through it all, there is the resonant, repetitive, constant cacophony of each man's thoughts.
James Carter has written a beautiful, terrifying, and humbling little book. Bookreview.com considers "Ghosts in Vietnam" an excellent work of literary fiction.
"Those who live by the sword, die by the sword" - James Carter expands this old adage to a full-blown story in his novel The Silver Flame. This action-packed tale is filled with captivating images and intriguing characters. Set in the waning years of the Japanese samurai, stark beauty is paired with violence, and freedom comes at a very high price.
It is 1871, Japan is in its Meiji Era, and American Malachi Cole is honing his fighting skills under the tutelage of his teacher Isamu at the House of the Burning Blades. Meanwhile, in the city's pleasure district called the Floating World, the geisha known far and wide as Scarlet Orchid was making elaborate preparations for her solo performance at the River Festival. Both have masked their deepest secrets by aspiring for perfection: Malachi Cole runs from his memories of the American Civil War by devoutly learning the way of the warrior, while the beautiful Scarlet Orchid draws her phenomenal dancing skills from a secret training regimen more dangerous than her dance instructor's classes. Warrior and geisha would never have met were it not for the greedy machinations of an unseen hand that desired Isamu's sword, The Silver Flame. Once the sword was spirited away, these two lives, along with quite a few others, would go through a violent upheaval that forever changed the seemingly perfect facade of their lives.
I found it interesting that James Carter made this story a study in contrasts using concepts that didn't normally contrast with each other. For example, Beauty or Perfection is not an opposing concept to Violence or Rage. And yet Beauty/Perfection was designated as 'yin', paired with Violence as its 'yang' - Malachi tried to escape the war of his own country by pursuing the martial beauty of another country's warrior lifestyle. Scarlet Orchid (known to those "who were plain and ordinary" as Mai) was perfection when she danced, and yet she resorted to violence to sharpen her skills and fuel her rage and ambitions. Even the artist Yoshiro Aso, a purveyor and creator of beautiful things, resorted to underhanded yet violent means to ferret away what he considered a thing of beauty, The Silver Flame. Carter managed to make this artificial contrast work for readers like me by linking Beauty/Perfection to a feeling of imprisonment. Mai was a prisoner of her beauty - as a renown geisha of the pleasure district, she was bound to the lifestyle by her patrons, and to the mistress who bought her as a child. Malachi's apprentice, Katsu, so desired the 'beautiful life' of a samurai, but he was barred from it because of his station in life, being only a gardener's son. Even the venerable Isamu, Malachi's teacher, and Isamu's fellow samurai and friend Master Katashi, who have attained 'perfection' as samurai, were trapped in their aging bodies - bodies that could no longer keep up with their knowledge and skill. Carter dispensed with too much exposition about the origins of these characters, but instead established that they were trapped - by beauty/perfection or from attaining it - and my attention as a reader was held until such time as an event of violent force came along to shatter that imprisonment.
James Carter pays tribute to Alexander Pope in Scandalous, an updated take on the poet's "Rape of the Lock". Fantabulously ravishing English beauty Belinda prepared to attend a tea party at Hampton's Court. She expected to look perfect, break hearts, and yet find the perfect match of gentleman and money who would sweep her away in supposed love and an even better quality life than she already enjoyed. The army of sylphs who love and guard her beauty and honor worked hard to achieve the first of those expectations, but their leader Ariel warned the belle in a prophetic dream of the dangers to her honor as she engaged her many male admirers. The beauty should have heeded these vague warnings more, for in the party a lecherous baron named Charles emerged as her nemesis, and performed upon her an act that led to her fall from grace. Of the other guests in the party who were treated to the intrigue these events had spawned, three conspired to contact a 'poet of flowery word' named Pope and commission a piece that immortalized the scandal to print.
Keeping the language more modern than what existed during Alexander Pope's time even made the satire more tongue-in-cheek, and slathered on some sarcasm to boot. References to Belinda as 'England's Rose' or 'the Chiswick Damsel' was consistent enough if a little plainer that what Pope had spun for her to affect epic poem proportions, but the more modern reference 'blond angel' gained humor simply by attaching it to the uptight English society of the period. By the time the author regularly whipped out honorifics like 'crème brulee', 'pink meringue', 'powder puff', and 'blond crumpet', I had a giggle and guffaw handy for every new title conceived.
What added to the entertainment however was the addition of new characters in the tableau. While staying consistent with the damsel, the villain, the sylphs and gnomes that Pope utilized to mimic epic poetry, James Carter added the wonderful trio of Cuthbert "Bertie" Sommers, Elizabeth "Betty" Winstone, and the Lady Victoria "Vicky" Cheltham to act like a hybrid of the witches in Macbeth and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream - they were witnesses to the event who functioned as a bridge to the audience of readers when they set the scandal to print. The character of Lucy Willows was also a modern twist, because the original epic poetry satire would not have a cynic who called out the baldfaced truths with a jaded eye, while her grandmother Sylvia Willows served like a 'wise king' to Lucy's 'wiser fool': Sylvia tells the reader (and Lucy) that such was the society of the day, and to survive it and succeed, one must know it for what it is. All these characters do deviate from the original satire, but for my modern sensibilities I enjoyed James Carter's counterpoint to Alexander Pope's original point. They helped the author's updated piece stay as irreverent yet a little raunchier, which certainly made it an entertaining read. I very much enjoyed Mr. Carter's foray into classic satire, and highly recommend it even to readers who are not familiar with Alexander Pope's original work.
Posted on behalf of BookIdeas.com, where the original review is documented.