A Trophy


aturday evening I sat down and cracked open a copy of Norman
Mailer's Why Are We In Vietnam? published in 1967 and finished reading it by Sunday morning. I was thoroughly engrossed by his novel about the male ego and how it got us deeper into the mess of the Vietnam War told through a hunting trip in Alaska.

Anytime I put up my feet and read now I always think of my teenage nephew who asked me a couple of months ago in all seriousness, "why read a book?" Without hesitation I replied, "to learn and maybe be entertained." Why Are We In Vietnam? managed to do both so by that measure I liked it, now if only I could get my nephew to read a book.

At first, I found the novel unapproachable as Mailer writes much of it in a slang/jive talk/stream of consciousness manner. I kept thinking what have I gotten myself into and what the hell is this but I was able to overcome my misgivings and the book settles down into a more proper use of the English language intermixed with the jive talk. The humor that comes with the jive talk is off-putting as it is crude and completely politically incorrect and inappropriate even by late 1960s standards but I did find some of it funny I admit. A famous author such as Mailer could not get a book published like this today and probably would not even attempt it because of the backlash it would receive over the language. That's a shame, because to focus on the language and offensiveness would be to lose the message of the book and censorship has no place in a civil society.

The plot of the book is narrated in flashback by an eighteen-year old from Dallas, Texas named DJ. He also has a split personality sharing the narration with a black kid from Harlem. You never know which personality is the real identity of the narrator or whether you are listening to playback of the entire story on God's great big tape recorder of life. Mailer goes on a bit of mind fuckery to make you think about perspectives.

DJ is the son of a wealthy businessman from Dallas. His father is the epitome of the corporate male ego concerned about status, wealth and his fragile male ego. The book told mostly in flashback takes place two years earlier when DJ is sixteen and involves a hunting trip to kill big game in the Alaskan bush.

DJ's close friend Tex is along on this trip along with two underlings of DJ's father. The male adults are all referred to as "assholes" and are respectively labeled to what degree of an asshole they are. The underlings are there so that DJ's father can assert his dominance in the wild and impress upon them that he is the man they should admire. Lots of chest thumping, dick measuring and gun worship takes place on the trip. Grizzly bears are the coveted kill, the trophies they seek and it is as a major focus of the trip.

Near the end of trip in Alaska DJ and Tex take off on their own adventure into the wild to prove to themselves that they are greater and stronger than the wild Alaska nature they are in. You might think of soldiers in Vietnam going AWOL into Cambodia. During their bonding in the wild alone the two boys have an inmate moment in which DJ grabs Tex's cock as they cuddle close to stay warm. Yet, Mailer cannot seem to get these two characters who are in some sort of love to copulate. His words will not take these two characters there and instead he has them burst forth with violence and wanting to kill, kill, kill. Perhaps this was a comment by Mailer about the violence caused by the repressed desire of male on male sex.

None of the book takes place in Vietnam and it is not even mentioned until the very last sentence of the book. Vietnam is only the subtext of the novel to which this romp in the Alaskan bush is set. This book is about how the male ego, hyper-masculinity, a drive to kill, to conquer rather than to admit the mistake that was Vietnam. The male ego does not handle failure very well so rather than retreat the machismo leads you deeper into a violent conflict that was a mistake from the beginning because we needed to save face and win a trophy called Vietnam. The book is as relevant today as it was in 1967.