Philip Caputo R. Z. Sheppard - Essay

R. Z. Sheppard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War, Horn of Africa) is one of the more successful enhancers of the factual, largely because he writes intensely about his own experiences, which were dramatic and perilous. Caputo, 42, served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Viet Nam during the mid-'60s. He returned ten years later to cover the fall of Saigon for the Chicago Tribune. As a journalist, he also rode camels with Eritrean rebels in Ethiopia and was shot in both feet by Muslim militiamen in Beirut.

Substantial parts of DelCorso's Gallery are set in Viet Nam and Lebanon; the novel is not only about war but also about the relationship between morals and aesthetics. Nicholas DelCorso, the proletarian hero with a limp caused by an old wound, acts as if the good and the beautiful are inseparable. He is an award-winning news photographer who, like a Hemingway bullfighter, prefers to work in close. The moment of truth occurs in the darkroom when the faces of the anguished and the dead resolve beneath the surface of the developing solution.

Unlike P.X. Dunlop, his rival and former mentor, DelCorso does not doctor his work for effects. He believes that to dodge in shadows or turn bright noon into a moody twilight is to romanticize war's brutality. Dunlop, on the other hand, brands his ex-protégé's snapshots sensationalist. Author Caputo clearly sides with DelCorso and with an ethic that combines the redeeming social value of photography with the woozier aspects of Zen: "His intimacy with his camera had to be such that his use of it at the decisive instant was reflex action, an immediate union of the tangible and intangible, of hand and eye, mind and heart."

The novel's central rivalry climaxes in Beirut, though not before DelCorso tussles with guilt, a bruised class conscience and the bitter truth that he would rather chase wars than stay home with his wife and children. From the reader's point of view, this is a good thing. A domesticated DelCorso, brooding about integrity, mortgage payments and marriage, proves to be unbearable. Abroad, he is the subject of an old-fashioned, manly novel, crisply written with plenty of locker-room banter and bang-bang.

R. Z. Sheppard, "Snapshots," in Time, Vol. 122, No. 13, September 26, 1983, p. K11.