Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2017

R&R, by Mark Dapin

Mark Dapin is the author of three novels: King of the Cross (2009) which won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction; Spirit House (2011) which I read when it was long listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (and was also shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year and the Royal Society for Literature’s Ondaatje Prize); and now R&R (2015), which I bought last year at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival.

Dapin’s Goodreads photo is interesting: Dapin strikes a Tough Guy Pose, he has tatts, and his black sleeveless Tee-shirt features a naked woman (See Mark’s comment below, setting me straight!) though his folded arms obscure part of the design, hinting that this is necessary to get past the Goodreads ‘community standards’.  But his facial expression doesn’t fit the Macho Man image: he looks a bit uncomfortable, a little rueful, perhaps not quite certain about this persona he’s portraying, as if he’s dressed up in a costume that doesn’t suit him.  This pseudo-laddish photo, it seems to me, captures the pseudo-laddish spirit of R&R, a novel which will antagonise some readers and make others admire it.  I couldn’t put it down.

Drawing on his military history The Nasho’s War (2014) Dapin brings alive a sordid story of Vung Tau, the R&R base behind the front line in what the Vietnamese call The American War (to distinguish it from the war of independence against the French).  R&R (Rest and Recreation) consists of drinking, prostitution and the occasional concert for the troops, and as the new US MPs (military police) are told when they arrive, they are at the front line of the war against venereal disease […] but what might be called the “back line” of the war against communism. So it is ‘safe’.

‘As you go about your duties,’ he said, ‘remember this: you are the best unit in the best army in the best city in the best war the world has ever known.  It is almost unheard of for a soldier to be killed in Vung Tau, and military police here have sustained no casualties whatsoever.

‘This is your war, men; a gift from the gods.  Enjoy it, because one day it will be over.

‘But not,’ he added, ‘any time soon.’ (p. 23)

(NB This is a rare example of text that I can quote without having to deal with ‘language’ I don’t use on this ‘family-friendly’ blog).

The Australian Army has arrived to share joint patrols, prompting these words of praise:

‘What we hope to achieve, I couldn’t tell you.  I only know that the Aussies have done a tremendous job of pacifying Phuoc Toy province, which was one of the most peaceful in Vietnam before they got here and doesn’t seem to have got any worse since they arrived, which is a f- outstanding success for any military program.’ (p.23)

And thus a noble but naïve protagonist from Bendigo called Shorty (because he’s tall) joins the antagonist anti-hero called Nashville whose real name is John Ulysses Grant from Tennessee, just in time for murder and mayhem to break out.

R&R is a tale of Man v Self and Man v Society, where the norms of society at home are in conflict with the society in which he finds himself in Vietnam.  Can Shorty be a Good Man in Vung Tau, and can there be redemption for Nashville?

To avoid spoilers, it’s best to hint at proceedings with the publisher’s blurb:

When another MP shoots a corpse in a brothel, the delicate balance between the military police, South Vietnamese gangsters and the Viet Cong is upset. Nashville and his partner are drawn into the heart of the matter by their violent colleague Sergeant Caution, the obsequious landlord Moreau, the improbable entrepreneur Izzy Berger and the mysterious, omnipotent Mamasan. Events begin to force the pair to uphold the law and eventually to take it into their own hands.

The characterisation is insightful, eventually bringing back stories to bear on the damaged personalities of Nashville, Sgt Caution and the ‘bar girls’ Quyen and Baby Marie.  But it’s definitely not a story for the faint-hearted or prudish.  There is brutal sex, casual violence against the helpless and appalling racism against both the Vietnamese and the African American soldiers, using thoroughly offensive but probably authentic language.  (Dapin is a PhD candidate at the Australian Defence Force Academy).

The implication is that this is how the story has to be, which may or may not be true.  In a past life, I knew many soldiers: nashos and regulars, officers and gentlemen, those who went overseas and those who stayed at home, and some who had failed to prove their case as conscientious objectors, were imprisoned for it, and then forced to serve out their two years as national servicemen anyway whether they did anything useful or not.  Not one of any of these thought we should be in Vietnam, though some of them went willingly either because it was their duty or for the money.  All of them had wives and girlfriends that they loved and missed, and loved to talk about with yearning when there were no other blokes around.  I can’t imagine any of them as cynical exploiters of women as depicted in this story.  But maybe I am as naïve as Shorty was on arrival…

Dapin, invoking a sporting metaphor, suggests that some men went to Vietnam for the adventure, which might also be true:

The platoon hated cordon-and-search operations.  They had come to Vietnam for a fight.  The one thing they wanted was to meet an enemy the same size as them – no, bigger – and fight him hand to hand, toe to toe, eye to f- eye, to shoot at men in uniform and be blasted in return.  They craved their father’s war, not this one.

The platoon had lost four men […] and never even seen a VC*.  They were fit and hard and armed and angry, trained up like first-grade footballers, moving instinctively as a team, working exactly the way they had been drilled.  And every week – every single f- week of the season – they were promised a fixture against the opposition, but when they arrived at the stadium the ground was deserted, with only a handful of old men in the stands, who hated them for their stupidity and their audacity, and turned their backs when the team waved to the crowd.

They were infantry soldiers, and none of them enjoyed frightening farmers.  They felt they’d been lied to, but they couldn’t say by whom.  And now here they were again, marching into the dawn, bogeymen for the village children. (p.263-4)

*Viet Cong, communists from the north, the eventual victors in the war.

R&R is a confronting novel, but I think it’s a compelling one. I suspect that Dapin has a strong readership amongst men, but IMO it’s instructive for women to read him too.

Author: Mark Dapin
Title: R&R, a novel
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2015
ISBN: 9780670078202
Source: Personal library, purchased at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival

Available from Fishpond: R&R


Responses

  1. I bought and read this book before Dapin came to the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival two years ago, and my reaction to the novel was precisely the same as yours. I don’t know anybody who was involved in Vietnam (either by fighting or objecting), because I came to Australia only in the mid 80s, but R & R struck me as compelling because it felt authentic, and I fell in love with it while reading the first page, which is one of the most well-written beginnings to a novel I’ve come across (I like it when an author has a flair for language, imagery and rhythm).

    • Hello Annette, thanks for sharing your thoughts in this insightful comment. I agree, Dapin has a gift for dialogue in particular: it’s what I noticed in Spirit House too. But he also has an unsentimental way of recognising what war does to people, in both the short and long term.
      I wonder what he will write next!

  2. Of all the books I won’t read and movies I won’t watch, anything to do with the Viet Nam War tops the list. Even the most “anti war” books and movies romanticise our involvement in this disgusting exercise. AND, the Viet Cong were a resistance movement based in the South, not to be confused with the North Vietnam Army.

    • *chuckle* I would have said the same thing. But Dapin’s is *interesting*.

  3. Hey, Thanks for that, Lisa. But that’s not a naked woman on my t-shirt – it’s a Thai boxer. My folded arms conceal his boxing shorts. Somebody gave me the shirt and I like it because it says ‘The art fo fighting’. The pic is actually from a photo-shoot for Madison, a women’s magazine. Ruefully, Mark

    • Hey to you, and thank you for dropping by!
      A Thai boxer?! Well, *chuckle* I got that wrong, didn’t I!
      Anyway, I like the book, and I hope you are writing another novel:)

  4. It certainly sounds very interesting and well done. I wonder how it holds up compared to the books written by those who were on active duty in Vietnam like Marlantes, O’Brien, Herr and others. Thanks for telling me about it.

    • Hi Caroline, thanks for dropping by:)
      I haven’t read any of those: are they novels or non-fiction?

      • They are novels or linked short stories. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Herr’s Dispatches is excellent and Marlantes Matterhorn is said to be astonishing. I have it on my piles but it’s huge, so I haven’t read it yet.

        • I’ll have a look in my library to see if they have them, thanks:)

  5. That’s a curious statement in the first quote: “the best war the world has ever known.” Not something most people would think about in relation to the Vietnamese conflict….

    • True. He’s being sardonic. And while it’s the last part of the sentence that pulled me up short, its effect is to make us look at the rest of the sentence too. Because while no one would ever say that about any war, the other parts of the sentence are said over and over. And the Vietnamese defeated them…


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