John M(ichael) Del Vecchio 1947–
Del Vecchio's critically acclaimed first novel, The 13th Valley (1982), is based on his experiences as combat correspondent for the Armed Forces newspaper The Screaming Eagle during the Vietnam war. The novel depicts the final months of American combat against the Viet Cong from the viewpoints of three American soldiers. Del Vecchio provides a realistic account of the conflicts, anxieties, and heroism of soldiers for whom time and purpose are measured in terms of survival. Critics were impressed with Del Vecchio's graphic description of guerrilla warfare, although some felt his heavy use of military jargon obstructed the overall narration.
[The 13th Valley is a] massive, unsure-of-itself, but minutely authentic first-novel: Vietnam through the eyes, under the feet, and through the boots of the "boonierats"—infantry troops even more jungle-entrenched than "grunts"—of Alpha Company. Del Vecchio mounts the base of his square, heavy book onto the shoulders of three soldiers in particular. Chelini, known throughout as Cherry, is the rawest recruit; and when war's full impact comes to him, he receives it with a sort of immune insanity. Egan is the shrewd sergeant, the pessimist, the realist who is surprised by nothing (but who compensates with romantic dreams). And Lt. Rufus Brooks, the squad leader, is a black Ph.D. in Philosophy who suffers from impotence (hence a failing marriage)—as well as from appalling ethical doubts about the war. So, embedded like mica-chips around these and the other characters, are vivid moments: jungle gourmet cooking with admixed C-rations; finding an NVA tunnel system (another of which will precipitate Alpha company's ultimate fire-fight and near-destruction); the creepy everpresence of leeches and giant spiders; artillery rounds that sound exactly like freight trains passing overhead; ambush …; Cherry's flipped-out behavior toward the end. Unfortunately, however, Del Vecchio's lurching-about in search of a consistent narrative approach leads him into awful prose potholes…. Norman Mailer, or even James Jones, then, Del Vecchio is not. But he has his own distinctive view of the 1960s' systemology on race, war, and sex (voiced by an assortment of characters). And, if uneven, this ambitious fiction-debut is promisingly alive with the gritty, insufferable atmospheres of Vietnam at full snafu tilt.
A review of "The 13th Valley," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1982 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. 50, No. 10, May 15, 1982, p. 615.
In a prefatory note [to "The 13th Valley"], John M. Del Vecchio expresses a debt to a soldier he met in Vietnam in the spring of 1971. A combat correspondent attached to the 101st Airborne Division, Del Vecchio was soon to depart Vietnam for "the world." "You can do it, man," said the soldier. "You write about this place. You been here a long time. People gotta know what it was really like."
Nurtured for more than a decade, "The 13th Valley" is not just one more testament to what went down over there. It is a big, lumbering, rhetorically uncombed war novel in the tradition of "The Naked and the Dead"—the sort of book critics have said could not be written out of the shifting rice paddies and jungles of Southeast Asia. It is replete with all the classic war-novel elements: with suffering and horror and camaraderie, edged with black humor and the impression that, for all the hardship, the survivors will never be so fully alive again. The book's focal character is a cliché straight from central casting. James Vincent Chelini, the Italian in the set—naturally, his comrades include an Irishman, a Jew, a chicano and an assortment of blacks—is a naif from Bridgeport, Conn. Chelini was supposed to be a telephone-systems installer tucked safely behind the lines. Instead, he lands in the infantry and is dropped among the "boonie rats," humping rucksacks across terrain owned by the North Vietnamese Army. In the course of things, "Cherry"...
(The entire section is 525 words.)
Like so many other classic American war novels, "The 13th Valley" follows a traditional course: A diverse group of men, gathered together to make war, proceed to transcend racial and ethnic differences, become brothers in combat, suffer horribly, fight an apocalyptic battle and—rather surprisingly, since this is a novel about Vietnam—win. At the end there is another conventional scene, a service for the dead and missing. The battalion commander, who had hovered above the fray in a helicopter, addresses the survivors: "I feel humbled to stand before so many brave and valorous men…. I want you to understand what your valor has achieved…. These men we honor here today can rest in peace, assured that progress in Vietnamization, for which they gave their lives, is being made."
These words are received by the men with a curious mixture of pride, apathy and disgust. They know they have "faced possibly the toughest obstacle life can throw at you and have conquered it," but they know too the horrible, hollow absurdity of the cause. After all, this is Vietnam in 1970. The antiwar movement at home has reached its zenith, troop withdrawals have begun, and it is clear there will be no light at the end of the tunnel. Those who remain and fight—the youngest, most nihilistic army ever fielded by this country—have few illustions. They are not the cocky, idealistic doughboys or G.I.'s of previous wars, but call themselves "grunts" and "boonierats." Their comrades are not killed but "wasted" or "blown away." Their battle cry, which echoes throughout this powerful and frustrating book: "It don't mean nothing."
It is to John M. Del Vecchio's credit that by the end of "The 13th Valley" we fully appreciate the irony of that double negative, since it meant a great deal to those who were there but accomplished nothing. There have been a number of excellent books about Vietnam … but none has managed to communicate in such detail the day-to-day pain, discomfort, frustration and exhilaration of the American military experience in Vietnam as well as this first novel by a former combat correspondent…. (pp. 1, 16)
Clearly Mr. Del Vecchio has taken it as his mission to make us aware, as precisely as possible, of the personal, unheralded sacrifices made for "progress in Vietnamization." He has taken an improbable group of characters and placed them in an unusual—for Vietnam—combat situation but, despite...
(The entire section is 1003 words.)
Because we may never know what Vietnam meant in the perspective of American history, we may have to content ourselves with simply learning how it felt to be there, and this is where "The 13th Valley" is at its best. How a soldier sees a beautiful landscape in terms of the protection it affords or the threat it conceals, or how to read it as a field of forces; what various weapons can do and how tactics resemble an aggressive dance; the feel of your equipment, the bite of your pack against your shoulders and back; the sounds of fear and of hope; the elation and fatigue of the body and its vulnerability to an unfamiliar climate; the "oceanic" lift that teamwork gives you; the immense gratitude you feel toward a reliable man and the rage toward an unreliable one….
The nagging, ever-recurring "What am I doing here?"; the shame of shooting at someone and the insane pride of hitting him; the knowledge that you're deliberately brutalizing yourself day by day in self-defense; the soft, suspended emotions of the civilians who have nowhere to go except into drinking, whoring, drugs and letters to or from home. The mysterious love-hate relationships of men without women; the arbitrary rituals that substitute in the Army for ordinary social life.
Mr. Del Vecchio knows all these things and more…. He is a passionate enthusiast of the concrete detail. If he had confined himself in "The 13th Valley" to straight reporting, the...
(The entire section is 487 words.)
[The 13th Valley] is Del Vecchio's first novel, and it does have problems. It is slow starting, too long and has far too much Army jargon, requiring the reader to leaf constantly to the back of the book for definitions. Many of the terms are unnecessary to the story, and the task of defining them becomes tedious and intrusive. There is also much rambling debate about war, and a lieutenant who takes time out from planning an assault on a North Vietnamese headquarters to write a thesis on the essence of conflict. He does this while hiding in a tangled bamboo thicket where he endures sporadic interruptions by mortars, rockets and sappers. That he might accomplish such a feat is as improbable as the nonsensical Ayn...
(The entire section is 486 words.)