Out of battle I escaped

PATCHES OF FIRE by Albert French, Secker pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
AYOUNG black soldier arrives in Vietnam. On his first night, he finds himself on guard duty, gazing terrified into the dark from a man- sized hole in the ground. Half way through his watch, he finds himself wanting to pee. "I had to go, I had to piss, but I was not going to piss in this hole. I didn't want to crawl out into the night. I wanted to stay in the hole and hide in the dark, but I had to go. I wasn't pissing in this hole and dying in it too."

It is the little details in Albert French's book that stick in the mind. Through these details French brings to life the terror that was Vietnam: the mud, the rain, the flies, the endless nights, the chaos of patrols, the boredom of life, the suddenness of death. Patches of Fire is the story of a young man's encounter with a war whose ghosts would haunt him throughout his life, and of a much older man's attempts to exorcise those ghosts by making them flesh upon the page.

French, born in the small, largely black town of Homewood, was 21 when he was sent to Vietnam as a marine. He had joined up at the height of racial unrest in the South. But even the world of flaming crosses and burning churches, of lynchings and murders, could not prepare him for the horror of Vietnam. In Vietnam life, as much as death, seemed incomprehensible. "I wasn't afraid of death," he writes. "I was afraid of not living. Death was around all the time; in a way I guess we were part of it. Living was distant, like distant things you loved and were but couldn't touch. I was afraid I would feel living again."

In an extraordinary, expressionist narrative French takes us into the darkest recesses of his mind to lay bare the haunted nature of the war. He is at his most powerful in rendering the emotions of death. As French is taken, wounded, from a battlefield, he sees the body of his friend Glickman, laid out with the other dead, waiting to be picked up by a chopper. "His face was still and pale yellow," remembers French; "only his hair had the colour of life as it blew in the wind."

After two years in Vietnam, French left a broken man, physically and mentally. His neck had been torn open by a bullet. The ghosts of the friends he had left behind tore at his mind. For two decades French drifted from job to job in an America he no longer understood, always coming up against his memories of Vietnam. The smoke that belched from a steel mill where he worked reminded him of napalm. So he left. But he was no more successful in his next job in keeping back the demons of the past.

By the mid-Eighties there was nothing left for him to drift into, and he simply shut himself into his room and his memories. "I'm a ghost, fucked up my chance at livin'. I'm hurtin' and I can't make it go away. I don't want to kill nobody but I don't want to be dead like this. Dead stuff just stinks, turns ugly colours. Gets ugly yellow, green, purple, black lookin'."

Redemption came suddenly and unexpectedly. One day he felt a compulsion to write. "I want to put the stuff I see in my mind on the page. I want to draw it with words, draw the feelings out of it, draw the feelings into little words." As a torrent of words flowed, French both resurrected and laid to rest his tormenting ghosts. "I want to see Vernon's face in the night, make it into a portrait with words. I want to bring that time back but I know I can't change it. Vernon still has to die, the wind is going to blow through Glickman's hair, I am going to be afraid again. Fuck it, I'm writing anyway."

There have been greater narratives of Vietnam, and of survival in post- Vietnam America. The larger issues of the war - like the Vietnamese themselves - barely figure in Patches of Fire. Even the issue of race is strangely submerged in French's narrative. But there have been few books which have expressed so vividly the personal experience of war and its aftermath, or rendered so honestly the journey necessary to retrieve the human being from the ghost.