Unbeknownst to me at the time, Michael Herr, whose legendary 1977 novel “Dispatches” will always be the definitive grunt’s-eye, bong-hit chronicle of the Vietnam War — an Elements of Style-defying, darkly poetic, run-of-the-brain masterpiece — died Thursday at an upstate New York hospital, which may have been near his home in Delhi, where he lived for years. I was writing, packing and flying to New York that day (i.e., yesterday) so yeah, I was buried but I still feel a little badly that I didn’t catch the news until tonight. Michael Herr was the King of literary Vietnam, a guy who brought the shit home like no one had ever dared or imagined, who rock-and-rollicized the nightmare and the murdering and the war highs. To me Herr was also the guy who sculpted much of Martin Sheen‘s voiceover narration for Apocalypse Now, although who knows who wrote what on that film? He also did some pinch-hitting on Full Metal Jacket. Herr was 76.
“‘Quakin’ and shakin’, they called it, great balls of fire, contact. Then it was you and the ground: kiss it, eat it, fuck it, plow it through with your whole body, get as close to it as you can without being in it or of it, guess who’s flying around about an inch above your head? Pucker and submit, it’s the ground. Under Fire would take you out of your head and your body too. Amazing, unbelievable, guys who’d played a lot of hard sports said they’d never felt anything like it, the sudden drop and rocket rush of the hit, the reserves of adrenalin you could make available to yourself, pumping it up and putting it out until you were lost floating in it, not afraid, almost open to clear, orgasmic death-by-drowning in it, actually relaxed.
“Unless of course you’d shit your pants or were screaming or praying or giving anything at all to the hundred-channel panic that blew word salad all around you and sometimes clean through you. Maybe you couldn’t love the war and hate it at the same instant, but sometimes those feelings alternated so rapidly that they spun together in a strobic wheel rolling all the way up until you were literally High On War, like it said on all the helmet covers. Coming off a jag like that could really make a mess out of you.” — page 63 of a dog-eared 1978 paperback version of Michael Herr‘s “Dispatches.” — “Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, We’ve All Been There,” posted 12.29.15.
“Last night I bought a fresh new copy of Michael Herr‘s Dispatches — easily the best written and certainly the most important book about ground-level grunts during the Vietnam War bar none, renowned for its rich conveyance of the surreal climate and mentality and particularly the special lingo that went hand-in-hand with that whole jungle slaughterhouse experience.
“I bought it with the idea of persuading Jett to give it a read, which of course he refused to do after skimming the first two pages as we stood in the book store. Broke my heart, but every generation has its own way of seeing and processing things, and of course writing about them, etc. I never liked Ernest Hemingway all that much when I was 21, certainly never as much as my father did. But I got into him later on. Across the water and into the trees.” — “The Carnage and the Grunts,” posted 6.12.09.