Warner, 1985, 738 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-30158-2
Every book review presents its own special challenge, but taking on Nelson DeMille’s Word of Honor presents challenge of its own. Simply put, this is a book that shouldn’t work. Describing it will send you in a coma and make you wonder how it can possibly be a pleasant reading experience. And yet it is. And yet it works.
For fans of DeMille’s books, this won’t be much of a surprise: While most of his books could be cut by half without much sacrifice, DeMille seldom deliver anything less than excellent novels. Despite the lengths, the indulgences and the sometimes tepid pacing, DeMille means entertainment. Word of Honor may be a bit less interesting than his other books, but it’s still crackerjack good stuff.
Writers are often advised to “start the story at the beginning, but no earlier” and the first page of Word of Honor is a textbook example of that axiom as Manhattan middle-manager Ben Tyson sees a fellow commuter reading a nonfiction book about Vietnam. Upon verification, Tyson is in the book, highlighted as a commanding officer who allowed a wartime atrocity.
And so it begins. The book outrages a segment of the American population and forces the US military brass to do something: before long, Tyson finds himself recalled to duty and in serious danger of being court-martialed. The obvious question, of course, is just what happened back there and then: what is the truth behind those so-called atrocities? Could there be some more to the story than wholesale massacre?
Of course there is. This is a DeMille novel, after all, and anyone who’s read works such as The General’s Daughter knows that the author can spin quite a yarn from the most ordinary beginnings.
But frankly, Word of Honor is more about soul-searching than plot. DeMille has been to Vietnam and if his latter Up Country remains a classic exploration of the conflict’s lasting legacy, Word of Honor can be seen as the first draft of his feelings about the war. War makes losers of everyone, seems to be saying DeMille, and there are no statue of limitations on atrocities. Ben Tyson may have become a well-adjusted, moderately successful all-American protagonist after Vietnam, but Word of Honor is the story of consequences for what he’s done. The perfunctory plot is just an excuse to think about what happened and continues to happen.
Doesn’t sound too riveting, right? Can you imagine more than seven hundred pages of that stuff? Contrarily to other DeMille novel, there aren’t too many crazy twists in here: The story progresses linearly to its conclusion, with the expected revelation late in the book and the protagonist’s just punishment. Even The Explanation, when it comes, seems underwhelming.
And yet Word of Honor is never boring. DeMille’s natural storytelling abilities are such that every page is a delight, that every character is worth understanding. Tyson may be a bit rough around the edges (the sarcasm so prevalent in DeMille protagonists seems muted here, often taking the form of anger rather than flippancy), but he’s worth caring about throughout his entire odyssey. As a Vietnam novel, it’s tremendously effective.
This 1985 book has aged a lot, but not in the way you may think. In these brave early days of the twenty-first century, it’s impossible to read without making parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. As with Up Country, reading Word of Honor brings along the certitude that the American invasion of Iraq is another national traume in full bloom: We know that there will be further stories of atrocities in the years to come. We know that in some ways, many people have learned nothing from Vietnam. Word of Honor has not aged in twenty years. If anything, it has become even more current.
So don’t let the lack of plot of the book discourage you. Just sink into the novel’s easy narration and enjoy, if that’s truly the appropriate feeling, DeMille’s sure-handed storytelling. It’s an unconventional novel, but one that delivers solid satisfaction. It shouldn’t work, but it does so magnificently.