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MICHAEL HERR : A Man of Few Words : What Is a Great American Writer Doing Holed Up in London, and Why Has He Been So Quiet All These Years?

April 15, 1990|PAUL CIOTTI

What sets Herr's book apart is the authoritative sense he conveys of the terror, ennui and ecstasy of what it felt like to be there. In a chapter about the siege of Khe Sanh, he offers a long series of conversations between two friends, a huge, gentle black Marine named Day Tripper and a little naive white Marine named Mayhew. The exchanges ring so true that one wonders, simply on a journalistic level, how he ever managed to record them.

He smiles. "They are totally fictional characters."

They are ?

"Oh, yeah. A lot of 'Dispatches' is fictional. I've said this a lot of times. I have told people over the years that there are fictional aspects to 'Dispatches,' and they look betrayed. They look heartbroken, as if it isn't true anymore. I never thought of 'Dispatches' as journalism. In France they published it as a novel."

But, Herr says, "I always carried a notebook. I had this idea--I remember endlessly writing down dialogues. It was all I was really there to do. Very few lines were literally invented. A lot of lines are put into mouths of composite characters. Sometimes I tell a story as if I was present when I wasn't, (which wasn't difficult)--I was so immersed in that talk, so full of it and so steeped in it. A lot of the journalistic stuff I got wrong."

Like what?

"You know, this unit at this place. But it didn't bother me. There is no shortage of regimental histories."

HERR KNEW HE'D had enough of Vietnam when, on an R&R trip to Hong Kong, he started to hallucinate. So after a year at war, he returned to New York.

"I wrote most of the book in 18 months--everything but the first and last chapter. I had a great 18 months working and playing. A great time. I was really sort of high from that experience, and I sort of re-entered the scene in New York where everyone was talking about the war, everyone was obsessed with the war, but no one had been to the war and didn't even know anyone who had been to the war, and it gave me a certain amount of glamour, and I was high on that."

Then, in rapid order, Herr lost three close photographer friends in Vietnam: Larry Burrows, Dana Stone and Sean Flynn (son of Errol Flynn). Even now, more than 20 years later, this is hard for Herr to talk about. His speech slows down, and his voice turns grave. "I flipped out. I experienced a massive physical and psychological collapse. I crashed. I wasn't high anymore. And when that started to happen, other things started to happen, too; other dark things that I had been either working too hard or playing too hard to avoid just became unavoidable.

"It was part Vietnam syndrome. I don't know what the other part was. . . . (Actually), I do know what it was. It was my life. The end of my 20s. I had put myself into every extreme feeling experience. I was a hog for experience, and I think it was against my nature. I was a nice, middle-class, educated Jewish boy who as a kid had every nervous tic and allergy possible."

He leaves his seat on the living-room sofa and slowly begins pacing, head down, the floor creaking. "The first half-dozen years of the '70s were very painful. I was having these recurring post-apocalyptic war dreams, but they were all taking place in New York, and it was a jungle. Just going out in the streets required the cunning and skill of special forces. I was living in the Village. There was like a whole year when I didn't go above 14th Street.

"I wasn't supporting myself. I had help from Valerie, help from my father. I was writing, keeping a journal. I didn't want to get out of it. I was so attached to my pain. I was in and out of analysis. Valerie and I broke up, and I lived in New Hampshire for a year. I was really severely alone in New Hampshire, some really serious solitude, and then it just played itself out. When I came back, I brought the rest of 'Dispatches' with me."

Even before it was published, Herr knew he had written a powerful book. The doctrinaire right was offended by the way he ridiculed the platitudes of what he called the Saigon "Dial-soapers," the starched and self-deluded brass. Herr had described an audience with Gen. William C. Westmoreland in which the commander, noticing Herr's Esquire credentials, asked if he planned to write "humoristical" pieces.

His sentiments did not please the doctrinaire left, either. "Viet Nam was what we had instead of happy childhoods," he wrote. And leftists piled on, too, calling him a war freak enraptured by the ecstasy of battle. "I was deeply thrilled," Herr says. "I knew I had succeeded. I offended everybody."

He worked so hard on that book, Herr says, that every word is engraved on his brain. "A few years ago I had to go back and re-read 'Dispatches' for typos in the American edition. And even after all that time, it was so familiar to me that I wasn't really reading, I was almost reciting it to myself. I feel if someone really cranked me up, I could almost recite that book phonetically--like Japanese rock 'n' roll singers."

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