C(ourtlandt) D(ixon) B(arnes) Bryan Jane Howard - Essay

Jane Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Friendly Fire, a stunningly ironic title, tells of the death by misfired American artillery of an American soldier, an Iowan, in a leech-ridden jungle foxhole in Vietnam. It is Bryan's third book and his first of nonfiction, and in it he flexes that writerly muscle Henry James described as "the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern." What's seen is how their son's early death affected the parents of Sergeant Michael Mullen; what's implied is the tarnishing not just of a state's but of a whole nation's comfortable self-image.

To read this book, as many first did in a three-part New Yorker series, is to weep, to retch, to despair, and ultimately to cheer. You weep because a 25-year-old graduate student in biochemistry, heir to the earth his great-great-grandfather settled, doesn't live to farm it. You retch because his death is so absurd. You despair because his haggard parents seem to have gained so little solace from their campaign to make sense of his loss. And you cheer because although Friendly Fire has shortcomings, it is a work of passionate energy….

What a stupefying mound of transcripts and notes Bryan must have faced when he finished his research. How easily he could have sentimentalized the Mullens, betrayed himself, or oversimplified the military's position. Now and then he falters: the stirring tone of his first four chapters isn't really regained until the final one, and I wish he hadn't used phrases like "in a very real sense." He raises a few questions—trivial ones, admittedly—which he doesn't get around to answering. But much honor to him. He has found himself the sort of richly fertile microcosm writers dream of, and in so doing he treads with grace and valor the boundary in what Norman Mailer has recently termed "the undeclared war between those modes of perception called journalism and fiction." That's a war we'd better quit fussing over; there are real ones around which merit all the shrewdness and all the poetry we can muster.

Jane Howard, "An American Tragedy," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1976, The Washington Post), May 2, 1976, p. L5.