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Review: The Man from Saigon, by Marti Leimbach
Nan Talese/Doubleday, 2009. 342 pp. $26

Have you ever read a first-rate novel that still leaves you unsatisfied? For me, The Man from Saigon is one, because, good as it is, it should be ten times better. The subject is riveting, the writing sublime, and the plot couldn’t have more tension. Yet though I believe everything that happens to the characters, I don’t believe what happens between them.

You can’t argue with the premise, though, or with how Leimbach carries it out. It’s 1967, and Susan Gifford, who writes for a women’s magazine, goes to Vietnam to cover the war. The story follows her fumbling efforts to understand Saigon, where everything and everyone is for sale; the climate seems too crushing to withstand; and the American officers conducting press briefings treat her with even more contempt than they do her male colleagues. Susan quickly realizes that to file anything worthwhile, she must get up-country, which she does, with the help of Marc, a TV reporter, and Son, a Vietnamese photographer whom no one else trusts.

American soldiers carry a wounded comrade through a swamp in Vietnam, 1969 (Courtesy National Archives)

American soldiers carry a wounded comrade through a swamp in Vietnam, 1969 (Courtesy National Archives)

Leimbach renders these events so vividly that it’s as if you too were getting spat on by the teenage prostitutes on Tu Do Street, huddling in a bunker under bombardment firmly convinced that the next incoming shell will kill you, or watching an army surgeon coked on Dexadrine performing operations round the clock.

And then the story really kicks into gear. Susan and Son join a supply mission heading into the Mekong Delta, supposedly nothing dangerous. But the Viet Cong ambush the column, capture the two journalists, and set out to find their own unit, from which they too have become separated. They take Susan’s boots, spare clothes, and personal possessions, and though she tries, through Son, to explain that she’s not a spy, a soldier, or a threat, they can’t understand what she’s doing there or why. So beyond the cuts on her feet, which become infected, or feeling dizzy and faint from lack of food and water, she fears every second for her life and Son’s.

Leave a box of vegetables in the sun and that is the smell. Lie on asphalt at noon on an August day and that is the temperature. The heat rises from the ground, bombards you from above. The dense brush, the banyan trees, their branches intertwined, connect at the top to form a canopy, allowing no breeze. . . . She has been on such marches before, always with a company of Americans, always with Son who carried the bulk of the equipment. It is different now. A kind of timelessness has set in. She keeps thinking she is dying, that she is walking with a ghost.

I’ve read many eyewitness accounts of the Vietnam War, the centerpiece of my teenage years, but I’ve never read anything as visceral as The Man from Saigon. The pigheaded nature of American policy, the duplicity, the savagery on both sides, the corruption at every level, the misery and death–they’re all here, in beautifully rendered detail.

That said, however, for me, The Man from Saigon fails as anything other than a sort of journalistic fiction. Marc, the TV reporter, becomes Susan’s lover mostly because they share that terrifying bunker under fire. I’d believe that they might sleep together a few times, but not that Susan loves him, as she repeatedly claims. Their only common bond is a passion to know what the army refuses to let them see, and what lies they’re told instead, but otherwise, he’s a closed door. He says little or nothing about his life, feelings, dreams, or past–except that he’s married–and tries to drown his anxieties in drugs and alcohol. He’s got nothing to give her.

Then there’s Son, for whom her affection grows during their captivity, during which he treats her as kindly as he can, even tenderly, at moments. I think we’re meant to compare him to Marc. But Susan doesn’t know who Son really is, so can you call that love? Also, she suspects he’s working for Hanoi, yet somehow, that doesn’t matter; she never considers that his activities might cause many deaths, including those of her countrymen. About Vietnam, I’m as dovish as they come, yet I don’t see how you can duck that moral question; in war, no matter what you do, there are always consequences. And if Leimbach is trying to send a feminist message, that Son’s quiet tenderness beats Marc’s overt masculinity any day, I agree, but not because of what she writes. The narrative allows neither man much of an inner life, so the contrast feels superficial and set up–Son has a gentle character, whereas Marc has a job and an outlook. No contest, there.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.