Picks and Pans Review: Message from Nam
Not so much a novel as a list of events, this book chronicles the life of Paxton Andrews, who starts off graduating from high school in Savannah, Ga. Within five years or so, she goes through three once-in-a-lifetime boyfriends, becomes a spectacularly successful Vietnam correspondent and never has even one teensy bad thought in her gorgeous little head. Near the end Steel describes Paxton as "25 years old. and very beautiful, and greatly admired in Paris."
A cynic might see Paxton as one of those women who prefers her men handsome and dead, where they can be idealized and not cause any problems. Steel sees her as a mega-cutie pie, dedicated to antiwar journalism but so obsessed with men that when she interviews a 25th Infantry Division officer, she notices his wedding band yet thinks, "He was a very handsome man, and there was an aura of quiet power about him, an air of total control, and yet there was something more too, something faintly wild and maybe even a little crazy." (In other words, yes, he's A Wild and Crazy Guy!)
Steel rarely gets past an inventory style of writing. Pax (Steel points out that her nickname is Latin for "peace" in case anyone has missed it) has sex, sees battles, interviews Kissinger and confronts death, but there's no substance to her experiences. Steel never gives even a one-sentence example from one of the wonderful stories Pax is writing. She is too anxious to get to new incidents so she can write something like. "And in March. Paxton went back to the States for the rest of the Calley trial, and saw him convicted. And she was in Washington to sec the enormous Viet Nam Veterans Against the War demonstration, where some of the men flung their medals on the steps of the Capitol. She wrote about it for the Times, and then flew back to Paris."
Despite the dates and details idly sprinkled through the novel, Steel's knowledge of Vietnam seems to have been gleaned from World War II movies. She constantly refers to U.S. servicemen as "our boys" and "the boys," often uses the word "mission" when she means "patrol" and has one soldier end a radio conversation by saying "over and out" (the equivalent of saying "keep talking to me because I'm going to hang up"). She seems ignorant of the fact that the common GI slang for "many" in Vietnam was the French word "beau-coup"—not her rendering of it, "bokoo."
She also forgets from one page to the next what she has said. On page 96, for instance, Paxton is described as "far beyond her years in her wisdom." On page 97 she is "too wise for her years." On page 190 Steel describes a "beautiful summer morning"; on page 193 only minutes have elapsed, but "the weather itself was unspeakable."
There are mounds of preposterous plot turns, all of them predictable 80 or 90 pages in advance once you get the hang of it.
You do have to admire the perseverance of a woman who so steadfastly writes like a C + seventh-grade English student: " 'Don't give me that shit!' she shouted back at him, her green eyes blazing into his like M 16 rifles." There is also a forlorn kind of decency to the novel; you can't help thinking that the woman who wrote it must be a nice person.
That means that as reading material, this book is preferable to sweepstakes-offer packets. And if you can't say anything else nice, don't say anything at all. (Delacorte, $21.95)