25 September 2013


by David Edgerley Gates

[Note: This post isn't supposed to be actively political, and I apologize ahead of time if it raises anybody's hackles. I mean no disrespect. R.T. and Dix, by all means chime in if you don't share my opinions.]

I personally think the Viet Nam POW-MIA issue is baloney, and I don't believe there were in fact any secret camps that held American GIs after the end of the war. Chuck Norris, who's admittedly all too easy a target, made a series of Missing in Action movies that flew in the face of reason, but the phenomenon is driven by a sense that we were humiliated in defeat, and Chuck Norris was in effect re-fighting the war, only this time we won. Basically, it amounts to denial.

This isn't to say that human remains aren't still being discovered and repatriated, and better forensics, including DNA analysis, have been used to identify formerly missing service members, which brings some small measure of comfort to their families, and helps redeem their sacrifice. There's also a certain amount of anecdotal evidence that a few Americans wound up in GRU or KGB custody, inside the Soviet Union, and you can't completely dismiss these stories, even if they feed into what some of us think is an irrational conspiracy theory.

What prompts these thoughts is not to argue, yet again, the unresolved issues of the war, or the fixation on Viet Nam in the American imagination, but something more tangential. Can a writer convincingly sell a story element, and will the reader buy it, if the central theme, taken out of context, seems preposterous? I'm not talking about alternate histories, say, or revisionism, but our own shared past. If the writer is Nelson DeMille, and the book in question is THE CHARM SCHOOL, then the answer is yes.

It's worth remarking that DeMille served in Viet Nam with the 1st Cav, in the late '60's, as a platoon leader, and his experience colors his work, not to mention that he might vigorously dispute my first paragraph, above. I intend him no insult.

You can't really explain THE CHARM SCHOOL without spoiling the story, so I won't. Trust me, though, DeMille takes a premise that I'm personally resistant to, and makes it absolutely compelling. You never stop and say to yourself, Wait a minute, this can't be true, because the guy never takes his foot off the gas. The narrative momentum snaps your head back against your seat. The trick, here, is obvious. Don't let the reader catch his breath. Easier said than done, but DeMille has complete control of a story on a collision course with Fate itself.

The question, then, isn't so much whether it's a tough sell, to a skeptic like me, but rather that it depends on execution, and of course on self-confidence. DeMille closes the sale because he doesn't entertain disbelief. In our waking moments, we might hesitate. In the dreamscape DeMille conjures up, everything is solid, and genuine, and all of a piece. You stub your toe on real things, and your doubts never enter the picture.


  1. The very reason for the old saw, The pen is mightier than the sword.

  2. The very reason for the old saw, The pen is mightier than the sword.

  3. Good points, David. As for DeMille, he's been one of my favorite writers for years. I read The Charm School long ago, when it first came out, and reread it last year.

    Two of DeMille's other novels draw directly on his Vietnam experiences: Word of Honor and Up Country.

  4. Point made well, Janice. I used to be a university science professor, and it was astonishing how many truly preposterous ideas about the natural world -- biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology -- people would swallow hook, line, and sinker if it was presented plausibly in a story. My son refused to go see Jurassic Park with me when it came out because he said he had no wish to have me rise up in the center of the theater and challenge the screen with, "No! That's not correct!" as he sat there cringeing. Which, you know, I would not have done. But I admit I would have been tempted. That's another book that put the pedal to the metal this same way as this one being described, and carried the day.

  5. David, no offense taken. Fiction, if done well and especially if it plays upon people's emotions, almost becomes a reality. And for some, it probably does become part of their reality. The potential "danger" of that well-done fiction is that it can color a person's or several people's beliefs about society, an organization or even the whole world. If the same theme is repeated in various works, the theme can rise to the level of commonly accepted fact.
    We all know there were POW camps during the war, plus there are several people unaccounted for after the Nam war for any number of possible reasons which happen during violent conflicts over time. In these cases, the writer's premise of WHAT IF? works well for fiction whether it's based on truth or not.
    As for The Charm School, somebody trained Russian agents to blend in to western countries, so WHAT IF? Besides, if memory serves, didn't North Korea kidnap some citizens from Japan to train some of their spies? All it takes is a whiff of truth to come up with some good fiction that suspends belief for the reader.
    Now, if I could only get rid of this Short Attention Span Disorder long enough to write that next blockbuster fictional novel.

  6. I agree with R.T.

    And, incidentally, I remember reading and enjoying Up Country, though I didn’t recall the author’s name. I’ll have to check out The Charm School.

    I also think an aspect R.T. mentioned, that The potential ‘danger’ of that well-done fiction is … the theme can rise to the level of commonly accepted fact, is responsible for some aspect of the “Viet Nam kept some of our vets” ideas. At the time, films and television shows were full of the idea that our government was lying to the people and covering things up – and, some of this was evidently true (Watergate, for instance), though I doubt the practice was nearly as wide-spread as Hollywood made it out to be. This, coupled with loved-ones longing for some possible avenue for the return of a dead son, fueled the fire imho.

    Personally, I think one of the best arguments against the idea that US personnel are being held, and that our government knows/knew about it, was presented in a Jack Reacher novel, when somebody pointed out that Reacher would surely have heard some sort of rumors, at least, if anyone in the government knew about such an occurrence. This dovetails with my feeling, that enough time has certainly passed that someone would have definitively let the cat out of the bag by now, if the rumor were true.

  7. I've never forgotten the scene near the beginning of The Charm School that I consider one of the most nerve-rackingly suspenseful I've ever read--David, you'll know what I mean. On the other hand, he tried the same thing in a much later book, the one about the TWA crash, and it was obvious and unconvincing, at least to me. At what point must a writer let go a plot device he or she has already used brilliantly? If the reader knows an incident is going to end badly because the set-up's bones are showing, there's no suspense no matter how the author draws it out.

  8. Dix, as a matter of fact, I liked UP COUNTRY a lot, but it seemed a little over-stuffed, as if all the things Nelson saw, when he went back (which he did), he couldn't bear to part with. I know the feeling. My only other reservation was the---um, how shall I say?---implied Swift Boat politics. You see this, of late, in Steve Hunter's books, too. I enjoy and admire both these writers, but sometimes their politics crowd out their narrative strengths, as in Hunter's SOFT TARGET, which, on the other hand, frighteningly foreshadows this week's terrorist attack in Nairobi. 'Nuff said.


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