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The unblinking "I" 

Tracy Kidder homes in on his Vietnam experience

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It's hard to say whether the memoir is rigged with more potential booby traps than any other literary genre. But it sure seems that way.

Most never emerge from the narcissistic coma induced by perpetual pats on the "I" key. Others find it necessary to provide an entire life story when only a few years are worth mentioning. In My Detachment, Tracy Kidder dodges these land mines (and others) by limiting his scope to his tour of duty in Vietnam.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, and most recently the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, Kidder is a masterful storyteller with an ability to walk the line between personal demons and larger social constructs. While most treatments of the living-room war focus on combat, Kidder's Nam was confusing, solitary and quite safe.

A product of presidential finishing schools like Andover and Harvard, Kidder was as unlikely a candidate for combat foot patrol as our current president. And not surprisingly, Kidder's reasons for enlisting were less political than pragmatic. Aiming to get in early and ride out his tour stateside, he was much dismayed when orders came for Vietnam.

Despite his proximity to the fighting, Kidder says the war remained "an abstraction. Dots on a map." Contrary to popular cinematic representations, Kidder notes that most who served in Vietnam never saw combat. Working in a radio research unit, he was far more afraid of reprimand from commanding officers or insubordination from below than any Viet Cong sniper.

Furthering his confusion were friends back home who assumed he was forever ducking bullets. Kidder details the ways he took advantage of this misperception by intimating experiences he never had: "I wanted to portray a rugged guy with smudges on his face from sleeping in a foxhole -- one hand holding an M-16, the other resting protectively on the shoulder of a Vietnamese boy named Go or Hanh."

While such an admission may appear fatuous, it's also entirely understandable. There he was, a young literary aspirant hoping this war he opposed might, if nothing else, lend him a bit of gravitas. (Think Hemingway.) But how much character gets built by drinking third-rate beer while listening to Simon & Garfunkel in the hooch?

Kidder's raw materials -- which include letters to and from friends, and snippets from his unpublished novel, Ivory Fields -- help bring the reader back to another time and place. These are generously excerpted and they breathe the young lieutenant to life in all his restless, self-involved glory.

While a lot of memoirs veer toward shocking confessions, Kidder offers a gentler indictment of his younger self. He doesn't shirk away from unflattering moments, as evidenced by this missive to an ex-girlfriend:

"I am getting to be a great comfort to myself. Soon integrity will have me in her clutches. And speaking of integrity, I rescued a pathetic little whore from the ocean today. God knows what she was doing there besides drowning..."

"Who is this guy?" Kidder seems to be asking, even as he tries to explain. There's a peaceful distance to these flashbacks, presumably attained over time and also, perhaps, through writing. It's a welcome break from the showy emotional fireworks typical in so much first-person writing.

What Kidder realizes is that to whatever extent it may conceal a lie, sometimes "the hint of a terrible war story was the best war story of all." Sometimes, however, the less glamorous tales of solitary confusion are even better. Sometimes the best war stories are true.

-- John Dicker

capsule

My Detachment: A Memoir

by Tracy Kidder

(Random House: New York)

$24.95/hardcover

  • Tracy Kidder homes in on his Vietnam experience

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