Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Michael Herr's book

Neil Shea in The American Scholar (What Michael Herr Meant to Me):

On a bright morning in June 2013, I squatted in a borrowed office at Sewanee, the University of the South, scribbling out lesson plans for a workshop in nonfiction writing that I felt only thinly qualified to teach. Above me loomed a large bookcase lined with classics of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and criticism, anthologies and dictionaries—a wall of words that reminded me daily of how much I had not read. At my elbow, amid the squall of papers ranged across my desk was a paperback copy of Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

Herr’s account of his years covering the war in Vietnam was one of several I’d assigned for the workshop that summer. I had been so thrilled to reread it and discuss it with my students that I’d written to Herr, who died last month at the age of 76, to see if he might speak with me. I knew it was a long shot. 

In the years following the 1977 publication of Dispatches, Herr rarely granted interviews, making clear again and again that Vietnam no longer interested him. He did not distance himself from the work so much as he refused to revisit its territory, declining to be pulled into the life, separate and surreal, that the book had achieved on its own. And yet the best piece of writing advice I ever received, and that I often recycle, is to Just do it, whatever it is, and so with Herr I had. Herr’s publisher agreed to forward the short note I’d written, while warning me that “Michael says no to everything.”

A month passed. By that June morning in my office, I had given up hope of a response and was staring at the bookshelf, wondering what new thing I could possibly say about Dispatches, when my mobile phone rang. The caller ID said Oneonta, New York. I didn’t know anyone in that part of the state and normally I would have ignored the call. When I answered, it was Herr. His voice was warm and soft, a slight sibilance, a deep calm. I realized I had never heard him speak.

I first read Dispatches in Iraq in 2006, while reporting a story for National Geographic. I had never covered war and had somehow argued my way into the job for a magazine that seemed to exist in a parallel world where such events almost never occurred. I’d arrived at the airport in Baghdad without a visa but carrying a copy of a recent issue in case anyone wanted proof beyond my passport and letter of assignment. Iraqi customs officials joked that I was too late—Saddam had killed all the wildlife: there was nothing left for National Geographic to see...

A couple of weeks after my arrival, the war took a desperate turn, when in late February, the al-Askari mosque at Samarra was destroyed in a bomb blast. For many Shia this was the final, unforgivable crime in the stream of violence that followed the American invasion. A brutal civil war would come next. But in the strange haze of before, I spent days bored and trapped inside the Green Zone, waiting to begin my embed with U.S. troops...Each morning and evening, I was escorted to meals by soldiers more bored than I was. Each day they said my embed would begin soon. The only book I’d brought was Dispatches.

For years I’d been reluctant to read it. The book hangs over every war story told since Vietnam and has never been equaled. Even the word “dispatch” was so transformed by Herr’s work that it couldn’t be used without implication, or supplication. Dispatches was heavy. 

When you’re a young writer, you think about such weight. You want to learn from it, leverage it, without being crushed. I remember opening the book at a picnic table outside the old parking garage where reporters were kept. 

In a tower nearby, soldiers from the Georgian republic stood watch, shadows behind dark glass. Overhead, a camouflage net scattered sunlight into hot little fragments. My copy of Dispatches was a first edition, its spine warped, its paper cover flaking like birch bark. 

I opened it, and very suddenly, there was no room to breathe. I was crushed from page one...

See also Michael Herr's 2000 Vanity Fair article on Stanley Kubrick.

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