The Innocent – Review

First novel a powerful tale of Vietnam, by Nancy Grape, Maine Sunday Telegram, November 1997:

History doesn’t make life simpler; it just makes it more ironic. Witness the revelation recently that Lyndon B. Johnson, far from confident about America’s military presence in Vietnam three decades ago, believed our commitment there was a mistake and wanted to end it.

Army Capt. Matthew Fairchild, an intelligence officer on the ground in Vietnam during the conflict, reaches the same conclusion.

Fairchild is the hero of The Innocent, a fine first novel by Robert Taylor of Blue Hill. There should be more. Taylor is an immensely talented writer, and The Innocentlaunches him auspiciously into fiction.

The story is rooted in two experiences – what it is like to be a gay man and what it was like to be a thoughtful American soldier in Vietnam. The immediacy with which Taylor portrays both experiences is stunning.

From the moment a Pan Am jet, complete with flight attendants and magazines, swoops into Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside Saigon to discharge a fresh load of American officers and enlisted men, the unpredictability of danger and death infiltrates the story as stealthily as enemy soldiers infiltrate U.S. bases themselves.

In the midst of death and dying, Fairchild operates in a sealed room at headquarters, tracing the moves of enemy combatants. He is of the war and yet a safe observer of it.

No such distance offers itself, however, when Fairchild, acknowledging his own awareness that from boyhood he has always been “different,” falls in love with a Vietnamese busboy whose once-lordly family has spent all it possessed to buy his way out of service in the South Vietnamese Army.

Why? The reason grows out of the compelling 2,000 years of Vietnam that The Innocent has been written, in part, to tell.

It is with fresh astonishment we read about a country whose real history so poorly matches America’s Vietnam-era stereotypes about it. Vietnam, Taylor tells us, far from being an ally or vassal state to China, has spent much of its existence repelling Chinese invaders. Sometimes Vietnam has failed. When that occurred, the Vietnamese have spent centuries enduring, surviving and ultimately outlasting their invaders.

What the Vietnamese did not expect was to face similar horrors from some among the American soldiers who had come to “save them from communism.” Yet that is what happens. Under the terrible stress of those horrors, Fairchild, armed with love and knowledge, must determine whether he has the strength needed not to betray them.

“All of a sudden I’m walking around in a nightmare,” Fairchild tells a trusted sergeant.

“All of a sudden, sir? Where’ve you been these last nine months?”

“Fighting a war that didn’t exist, I guess. Certainly not this vicious, insane one.”

“Maybe you just weren’t paying attention.”

Such dialogue helps Taylor tell his story freshly, with directness and clarity. He has something important to say about life experiences, global and personal, and he says it powerfully.

Few first novels exhibit the force and control Taylor brings to The Innocent, a title that appears to apply equally to Fairchild, his Vietnamese lover Nhan and to Vietnam itself. The novel might have been improved had Taylor taken the time to dramatize much of the sweep of Vietnamese history and culture that he lays out rather didactically.

Yet that’s a small complaint. The dramas, internal and external, that he does depict, and the insights he shares, make The Innocent a first novel well worth reading and Robert Taylor a novelist to whom readers will eagerly look for more.

The Ellsworth American – June 6, 2002 – Perchance to Dream