Warner, 2002, 859 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61191-3
It doesn’t take a genius to see that Vietnam still looms large over the American psyche even after a lifetime (my lifetime, to be exact; I was born in 1975, not even six month after the fall of Saigon) Sixty thousand Americans died or disappeared during that war; the nation hasn’t stopped mourning ever since. In some ways, the United States have been colonized by the enemy. Events thirty years distant dominated even parts of the 2004 American Presidential election. And as the nation slides into another inextricable conflict (oh, you know which one I’m talking about), Vietnam emerges from the depths of history as a lesson everyone forgot about.
It’s hard not to dwell on such subjects while reading Nelson DeMille’s Up Country. Nominally billed as a thriller and a sequel to the rather good General’s Daughter (you’ve probably seen the movie by now), it’s much closer to a confessional, a travelogue and a lengthy meditation on the continuing nature of the Vietnam war. With it, DeMille may have written his worst novel and his best book.
Let’s first state the obvious: This is the return engagement for Paul Brenner, sarcastic (and retired) investigator for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. As the novel begins, Brenner is bored, possibly in difficulty with his girlfriend and stuck with a Danielle Steele novel. But there’s some hope: his ex-boss has a simple mission for him. Just a tiny little thing: Go to Vietnam and investigate a thirty-year-old murder by interrogating a witness who may or may not be alive. Brenner immediately suspects there’s more to the story, but agrees to go anyway. Pages later, he’s on the ground in Saigon (Oops; now “Ho Chi Minh City”) and already getting in arguments with the local authorities.
Fortunately, he’s got some help: An American expatriate named Susan Weber is his local contact, and she quickly seems to warm up to Brenner’s charm. Pretty soon, she sticks around as he travels around the country and re-visits the battlegrounds of the Vietnam war. Up Country takes on its true dimension during this section of the book, as DeMille, himself a Vietnam veteran who briefly returned to Vietnam during the nineties, describes the memories and the scars suddenly revealed by the trip. DeMille and Brenner’s identities may blur during this segment, but one thing is for sure: This is a heartfelt book and even Brenner’s sarcasm takes a holiday as he revisits his own history.
But Up Country has been sold as a thriller and so soon enough it has to evolve into one. As Brenner pushes northward in search of his witness, he gradually loses all the trappings of American civilization. By the end of the novel, he barely squeaks by with the clothes on his back and his trusty passport. Some ominous political scheming emerges throughout the novel and is barely resolved by the time the last words are read. Thriller-wise, Up Country does the job… but there’s no doubt that it’s not the book’s raison d’être. The General’s Daughter is the procedural thriller you expect from DeMille; Up Country is, much like Stephen King’s Hearts in Atlantis, an excuse to re-visit the sixties by dressing them up like what the author’s fans expect from him. Somehow, I doubt that they’ll be disappointed.
This being said, DeMille fans already know that the man writes too much and his books (especially the latter ones) are far too long for their content. But even as Up Country breaks new records for DeMille at nearly nine hundred pages, it also manages to keep the interest level high during its entire duration. The careful description of modern-day Vietnam, Brenner’s inner conflicts and the thriller framework all contribute to give the depth of a satisfying book. Less-patient readers (or readers without a good understanding of DeMille’s work) may not be so charitable.
Still, the travelogue, the memories and the end payoff are more than enough to sustain interest in this book. Plot-wise, it’s not his best novel. But in some ways, Up Country is the best, the most moving thing he has ever written. It looks at history and the march of nations, making the point that wars are made out of people, and people remain stuck with memories much like countries do. It’s enough to make you ask; as America’s latest unwinnable war drags on in the middle-east, are we going to see, in thirty years, an equivalent novel about a veteran re-visiting Baghdad?