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Review: James Ballard's Poison Jungle
Norm Goldman --  bookpleasures.com Norm Goldman -- bookpleasures.com
Montreal, QC
Thursday, July 22, 2021


Poisoned Jungle, James Ballard's debut novel, reflects the Vietnam War with graphic ferocity, portraying its horrible atrocities and evilness while rendering the historical context contemporary, vivid, and chaotic.



The story is a gripping depiction of war, with tremendous dark emotional and terrible ramifications. One caveat: it's hardly a happy-go-lucky story; nonetheless, it begs to be taken seriously. It demands to be told and retold, reminding us of the futility of the war. And Ballard is well-suited to write about the war having served in Vietnam's Mekong Delta as a medic, witnessing firsthand its calamities.

The narrative is framed into three periods in the life of the narrator, Andy Parks, nicknamed Doc. In the first period, we read about twenty-year-old Andy in 1969, serving as a medic in the Ninth Infantry Division of the US Army in Vietnam. We are informed that he is one-quarter Cherokee, who grew up in Afton, in northeastern Oklahoma. Before the war, Andy had never heard of Vietnam.

The brief ten-week medic training Andy receives before his service in Vietnam never prepares him for the wounds, traumatic injuries, and dead bodies he would witness during his time in the infantry. Each life that was lost takes a part of Andy, and invariably leaves him wondering if he could have done more, not merely for his fellow buddies but likewise for the young children, women, and other civilians who were subjected to the carnage and mass deployment of napalm and Agent Orange.

In the second phase of Andy's life, he arrives home and experiences his own kind of upheaval and turmoil. Anti-war sentiment is rampant and he struggles to make some sense of his existence. The expected elation of surviving the war never actually emerges. The war stands between him and a return to normal life. He keeps on reflecting on the fate of the servicemen who were with him in his platoon and who are still waging war in the Delta. He is depressed, isolating himself, and slipping into alcoholism.

GI benefits were wanting, including badly needed medical treatment. Veterans are met with institutional responses marked by indifference. Basic human support and guidance in adapting to civilian life were never forthcoming. For example, when one of Andy's friends is lying dying in a ward because of cancer after having been exposed to Agent Orange, the army declines to pay for his medical bills. The defoliant caused health issues not merely for the Vietnamese but also for the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was again initially discounted, leading in many instances to severe psychological misbehavior. Andy was indeed hesitant to have kids of his own, for fear they would be born with birth defects, something that had cropped up with a sizable chunk of veterans who had handled Agent Orange. Eventually, he and his wife adopted two Vietnamese children.

He knew the war had not ended for him with the completion of his tour. Andy even goes AWOL when he is assigned to work as a medic in a veterans' hospital to serve out his last six months of service. It is here where he comes in contact with the frightful suffering of the survivors of the war, and, in particular, Calvin, a veteran with extreme deterioration in all four limbs, leaving him dependent for basic bodily functions. One day, Calvin is discovered dead and Andy, who was the last one to see him, is charged with murdering him.

The third part of the tale finds Andy emigrating from the USA to northern Alberta, Canada. In the ten years since leaving his home in Oklahoma, he had not hung around in one place for more than a few months. While living in Alberta, he learns from a close war pal about one of his buddies who is on death row for murdering someone. It is in Alberta that he meets his future wife, Lisa. After marrying, they settle in the Peace River Region of Alberta where he becomes a beekeeper, selling honey for a living.

What makes this novel stand out is that it takes an unsung medic and uses his story as a vehicle to capture the heavy cost of the Vietnam War, inflicted not only on the Vietnamese but also on the American soldiers. Over fifty-eight thousand American service members died and over one hundred fifty thousand were wounded. And this is not considering the thousands that were psychologically and mentally damaged. Vietnam was the most heavily bombed country in history. U.S. bombers dumped twenty million gallons of herbicides to defoliate Viet Cong hiding places. It decimated over five million acres of forest and five hundred thousand acres of farmland.

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 Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com

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