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Now in Paperback

December 20, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Raditzer, Peter Matthiessen (Vintage: $5.95). Peter Matthiessen has spent most of his life as a writer traveling far from his native New York City. Yet, as this early novel shows, Matthiessen hasn't been running away from home, postponing self-discovery through peregrination. He left the overprotected realm of family to hasten self-sufficiency and self-discovery. This novel, set in World War II, should appeal to anyone who has experienced similar feelings, for its protagonist, Charlie Stark, seems close to Matthiessen. Pressured by his father to become a lawyer in the family tradition, Stark rebels, having surgery on his bad knee so he can join the Navy and then further incurring his father's incredulity by enlisting as a private rather than capitalizing on his upper-class connections and becoming an officer. "A big man, with the big nose of a prophet in a generous face," Stark is more self-assured than his seasick, homesick mates. He is, moreover, separated from them by his preference for solitude (he favors the "isolated realm of wind and water" on the open deck to the dark, drab, unhappy confines of the ship below) and by his staunch morality, also a way of rebelling against his father, who warns that "worrying about the have-nots will make you a have-not" and explains that lawyers, "strictly speaking, are not concerned with justice. We are concerned with justice under the law. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a difference." Stark, however, is not nearly as self-aware as he thinks--until, that is, he meets Raditzer, another enlisted man who is so nihilistic in his thinking that we first dismiss him as a king might a sly court jester. "Life was figured out for a guy like you before you was even born hardly," Raditzer tells Stark off-handedly. Gradually, Stark realizes that his rebellion was superficial on the whole, merely a way of escaping his family without actually changing his character.

In his subconscious, Stark was not traveling to Pearl Harbor. He was Gauguin, seeking out a symbiotic relationship between his soul and an exotic, mysterious island. Raditzer, though blinded by his own fiery intensity, illuminates Stark's life so he can see this self-deception: "Unlike Gauguin, he had brought (this Eden) nothing and had taken nothing away." While taut, gripping and never ponderous, this 1961 novel is packed with ideas that demand reflection. Is Raditzer beneficent, for instance? In 1961, many reviewers saw him as the incarnation of evil. And was Stark right to spurn the friendship of Raditzer, who was, after all, what Stark's father would have called a "have-not"?

The Real War: The Classic Reporting on the Vietnam War With a New Essay, Jonathan Schell (Pantheon: $7.95). Most of us, having seen one too many books or movies about the debacle in Vietnam, have relegated it to history. Or so we think, for the war already has become a part of us, nurturing our skepticism about the effectiveness of military crusades against Third World Communism and calling into question the logic in such ideas as "destroying the society in order to save it." "The Real War" incorporates Jonathan Schell's classic 1967 book about a village that had to be destroyed (in order to . . .), a series of articles on the war for "The New Yorker" and a new essay about the rationale behind the conflict. For readers who value intelligent, revealing writing about American history but have grown impatient with anguished accounts, it is the best available collection of writings about Vietnam. Schell puts his anger on hold and brings issues and ideas alive with the assurance, evenhandedness and reserve of a historian looking back from 2067. While many of the events described in "The Village of Ben Suc" are disturbing, the tone in the lengthy introductory essay is wry rather than indignant, understanding rather than antagonistic.

The dissidents had the last word on the war, of course, and so one of this book's most refreshing contributions is to remind us that the war mushroomed not because of a "Dr. Strangelove" in the Kennedy Administration but because of a widespread fear, based on World War II, that aggression by a great power must be faced early on or it will have to be faced later at a higher cost. As Schell writes, "For a generation of policy makers, this historical analogy, in which Communism (variously defined) played the role of Nazi Germany, provided the key to understanding international events." This fear, as Schell sees it, perpetuated the war. "The record suggests that the policy makers stayed in Vietnam not so much because of overly optimistic hopes of winning . . . as because of overly pessimistic assesments of the consequences of losing."

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