Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green was awarded the Maxwell Perkins Prize by Charles Scribner’s Sons; this prize is presented annually to the author of a first novel of exceptional promise. The prize is offered in commemoration of the work of Maxwell Perkins, editor for Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other Scribner authors. The novel receiving the prize must be concerned with the American experience.
The main character of Wright’s novel, James Griffin, is learning, after the trauma of the Vietnam War, “to meditate like a plant” (thus the title, Meditations in Green). The book is divided formally into fifteen numbered meditations, but there are many other flashbacks, episodes, and short vignettes that break up the narrative. These meditations range from descriptions of how to put together drugs, to lists of insects, to dazzling catalogs of images. The green of the plants which Griffin grows in boxes in his urban apartment is linked with the green of the Vietnamese jungles, the army uniforms, even the icing on the cakes which are prepared for celebrations in the army camp. Griffin is haunted by his vivid memories of the war, and the insanity and brutality of his experience in Vietnam are communicated to the reader with painful immediacy. At the same time, the author deliberately uses images of film and cameras, he even presents actual events as potential film scenarios, in order to stress the difficulty of understanding the reality of the war.
During the war, in the army camp, Griffin and his friend Trips spend most of their waking hours smoking marijuana or taking other kinds of drugs. There are flashes of black humor, such as when Griffin returns from the hospital and says that he needs a diet consisting of the four basic food groups: caffeine, nicotine, sugar, and dope. The overwhelming tone, however, of Meditations in Green is savagely despairing.
Claypool, a young man from New Harmony, Indiana, is so fresh-faced that Griffin immediately thinks of a scenario for a war film in which Claypool is the “Kid.” By the end of his tour of duty, Claypool has witnessed torture, gone on an unnecessary expedition into the bush, and received LSD for a week without his knowledge. During the week in which he is missing, no one notices that he has disappeared; he sits alone in his room in the dark. Although he has never tasted even beer, his condition is diagnosed as acute alcoholism. He is sent to a military hospital, where according to Trips, he can spend the rest of the war “sitting in a closet and drooling in his shoe.”
The first commanding officer of the unit dies almost at the outset of the book in an airplane crash that may have been caused by sabotage. The characterization of Major Holly, the new commanding officer, resembles that of some of the leaders of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 (1961). When he is given command of a demoralized camp plagued by drug addiction, Major Holly decides to have everything painted white and flower beds put in. Before long, however, the cleanup campaign becomes a mad compulsion. When a visiting general steps in a pile of excrement left by one of the dogs, Major Holly orders all the dogs shot and then has them buried in a mass grave.
Alarmed by a stray shot, which he thinks may have been aimed at him, Major Holly decides to have a tunnel built from his quarters to his office. He thus is insured that he will not be assassinated by his own troops. When Holly’s Vietnamese servant-mistress becomes pregnant, the general asks if anything should be done about her pregnancy. Major Holly says no, adding that Anh said that the child was not his. When the general asks who the child’s father is, Holly replies: “I didn’t ask.” The Major’s lack of a humane sense of responsibility about his own offspring is typical of the moral degeneration in the camp he commands.
Major Quimby (the chief of the intelligence operation), Kraft (an experienced CIA operative), and a small group of men fail to return after a helicopter ride over the jungle. In one of the most nightmarelike sequences in Meditations in Green, Griffin volunteers to assist the group of Marines who are sent to find them. The thick jungle growth oppresses the men, and they discuss what a blessing it would be to defoliate the vines that are choking them. The crew and passengers of the helicopter are found hanging from the rotor blades by twisted lengths of bicycle chain; inside each man’s mouth is his own penis; they are covered with insects. Griffin becomes very ill as they try to pack the men into zipped suits for burial; one of the more experienced Marines laughs and efficiently packs up the dead. Kraft is not found during...
(The entire section is 1944 words.)