Saturday, January 2, 2010

My Detachment

Let me begin by saying that Tracy Kidder is hands-down one of my very favorite living writers. He has refined the tradition of Truman Capote's nonfiction novel, creating books which are truly remarkable in their storytelling. Kidder combines an engaging and engrossing narrative style with an uncanny ability to reveal the stories behind the story. My Detachment is no exception.

Unique among Vietnam War memoirs, My Detachment features no grunts humping long distances, no coming to terms with one's mortality in the midst of a firefight, no teetering on the brink while battling a drug habit in the midst of war. Rather the story centers around Kidder's year in Vietnam as a rear echelon lieutenant who ended up in Army Intelligence after graduating from Harvard. Fearful of being drafted into the infantry after matriculating and hoping to avoid the war, Kidder joins ROTC while still in school, yet lands in Vietnam as part of radio operations pinpointing the locations of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong radios.

The main similarity of My Detachment to other books about Vietnam is Kidder's struggle to balance the juxtaposition of events real and imagined. Because of his non-combat position, however, this struggle is in many ways more poignant for it's transparency than in other depictions. The entire memoir is interlaced with passages from Mr. Kidder's unpublished novel written upon returning home entitled Ivory Fields, which features a sort of alter ego, bad ass infantry lieutenant Larry Dempsey who dies standing up for what he believes is right even though he knows that defense will cost him dearly. My Detachment is also set among the back drop of a love affair with the archetypal girl-next-door-back-at-home named Mary Ann, but in this case the relationship is lackluster and decidedly one sided on the part of young Mr. Kidder. We read along as Kidder writes awkward letters back home of lied about bravado and hinted at tragedy which doesn't exist.

This exposed blatant untruth, in my opinion, makes this a great memoir of Vietnam, since the creation of the proverbial war story is in itself, according to Tim O'Brien a sort of untruth, or half truth, or at least a manipulation of the truth. We rarely get glimpses into the emotions which serve as primary mover for the crafting of war stories, yet young Mr. Kidder's piteousness leaves the reader feeling awkward and uncomfortable as we experience the feelings of inadequacy, of wanting to make sense of things we don't understand, of hiding our cowardice, of packaging our experiences in a way to make them more palatable to those in the world.

Serving as a balance to these poignancies, are the Catch-22esque retellings of the operations of the military hierarchy: stories of classified letters being blown away by helicopter, the subsequent results and new "triple wrap" protocols stemming from losing that letter, the colonel who shouts his own name while yelling at troops on the ground from the chopper above, the ridiculousness of Mr. Kidder's Radio Research job itself, which amounts to basically getting outdated information and passing it on to his higher ups.

Filling out My Detachment is an absorbing set of characters. The most compelling of whom is Pancho, both a thorn in the side of Kidder ,as well as someone who he admires on some level. It is Pancho's approval Kidder seems most to seek. It is the loss of Pancho's approval Kidder seems to feel most keenly when Kidder has his own moment of truth. Unlike his fictional Lt. Larry Dempsey, Mr. Kidder does not meet his trial with courage and character; rather, he crumbles and is left wondering if his men heard him crying over the stress of inspection preparation. Pancho goes onto work for the CIA and turns up to see Kidder years after the war. Summing up Kidder writes, "He had wanted to have an interesting life, I wanted to be interesting”

This book was reviewed- over two days while nursing, having toddlers climb on me, and competing for computer time with a couple tweeners- as Book 1 of


  1. You're review link will post on Jan. 15, 2010, at War Through the Generations.

  2. I came over from the Challenge blog b/c this book got my attention, and it really sounds good. The part about the helicopters blowing away papers struck me as I had just written about that happening to my dad just before he returned from Vietnam (in case you want to read it, here's the link). I'll have to consider adding this to my reading list for the challenge!

  3. I hadn't heard of this book until your review. It sounds like it might be worth adding to my reading list for the challenge!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  4. I also highly, highly recommend his book Home Town. It's one of the best books I've ever read!

    My Detachment is pretty short--that's always a bonus when you have a lot of books in the hopper. Or a minute attention span, like me

  5. I love Kidder's books too - Among Schoolchildren and House especially. I had not heard of this one - loving memoirs I should enjoy this one especially. Thanks for introducing me to it. And good luck with your brood!