About Love Beneath the Napalm


“Love Beneath the Napalm” is a collection of short stories about Viet Nam. The time frame of the stories spans the imperial and French colonial period, the United States engagement in Southeast Asia, and the aftermath of what the Vietnamese still refer to as “the American War,” including the Chinese invasion of 1979. The point of view characters include the mother of an imperial hanger-on during the latter years of the Nguyen dynasty; Tsarevitch Nikolai of Russia, later Czar Nicholas II; the French composer Camille Saint-Saens; North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, both men and women; a Vietnamese Catholic priest; and an American veteran later turned lawyer. The settings include Hanoi; the city of Lang Son in North Viet Nam; Laos; the former imperial capital, Hue; the jungle along the Ho Chi Minh trail; Saigon; Con Son (Poulo Condor) Island, the scene of the infamous “tiger cages”; Los Angeles, California; San Francisco, California; and Schenectady, New York.

Author question:  What inspired you write these stories?

The binding theme of the collection is the enduring and traumatic impact of war on all those who participate in and are swept up by it, whether voluntarily or otherwise. As an English teacher in Saigon who also assisted in the administration of a social welfare project between 1972 and 1974, I soon came to realize that the war was a scarring experience whose effects were permanent. Even those fortunate enough to avoid combat were affected by the war in ways which I could not begin to understand. I have tried in these stories to adhere to Chekhov’s view that it is neither the business nor the prerogative of the writer to judge his characters or the situations in which they find themselves. Instead, I have simply tried to show those characters as they have struggled to survive and find peace against intractable odds. I hope that in some small way the book succeeds in that endeavor.

Author question: What type of readers would your collection appeal to?

I believe that this collection might interest veterans of the Vietnam era, including Americans and Vietnamese, but also, perhaps, some of our allies in the war, such as the Koreans and Australians. I would hope that the book might also appeal to civilians of the “Vietnam generation,” inasmuch as the collection has on the whole neither a military nor a political bent. Because of the extension of the book back in time to the French occupation of Indochina, perhaps it might have some appeal to Europeans as well. Most of the works written by Americans about Viet Nam have as their typical subject matter the military or journalistic experience, with very few books (Robert Olen Butler’s are notable exceptions) concentrating on the ordinary experience of the average Vietnamese. Yet it is the average, ordinary Vietnamese who are the focus of my collection.

The book might also speak to those who are concerned about our seemingly interminable military engagements in the Middle East. Leaving aside obvious cultural distinctions, it seems to me that the current plight of the Iraqis and the Afghans, particularly the civilians, does not differ in any material respect from that of the Vietnamese during their many wars. It would be my ultimate hope that anyone who is concerned about war in general, and on what war does to the human psyche, might find the collection to be of some value.

The book might also appeal to young people of the post-Viet Nam generation(s), whether American or Vietnamese, who seek to understand the war more fully. These young people, whether descendants of veterans on either side of the war or just people who have an abiding interest in that period in American and Vietnamese history, might find the book useful and rewarding. Such, at least, is my hope.