Searching for Gurney
By Jack Estes
Review by Robert Drynan
(A Marine Veteran of Vietnam)
This book is a unique effort that successfully ignores the usual dramatic arc. It is a kaleidoscopic series of vignettes of the experiences of three marines serving in Vietnam in 1968/9 and a North Vietnamese soldier. It details their experiences and the aftermath consequences. Estes conserves some of the elements of the arc. But It is not the typical exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The author employs copious flashbacks to flesh out the narrative which begins with a man’s return to his family after his service.
Nevertheless, the quality of the writing is exceptionally high and Estes displays a gripping sense of authenticity in his descriptions of combat in Vietnam’s dense jungles and in its rural villages and rice paddies.
He also describes poignantly the aftereffects on the protagonists. JT’s personal experiences at war and upon his return home may reflect more those of the author himself than those of Hawkeye and Coop with whom he shared an intense comradeship. The three friends had been assigned to a reconnaissance platoon that conducted independent patrols ferreting out Viet Cong hideaways.
Hawkeye is black, a young delinquent arrested for assault and other misdemeanors in Chicago. The judge offered him the alternatives of jail or the Marine Corps. Hawkeye was escorted to the recruiter. It turns out that Hawkeye has a very high IQ and he had become bored with school and dropped out. That may have accounted for his many delinquencies. In boot camp his bright intelligence brought about a transformation and he decided that he had found his niche in life as a marine.
Coop, like JT, was from Oregon. Both returned to the state after release from military hospitals. Their time after the Corps is a déjà vu trip for anyone intimately familiar with the state of Oregon. But Coop, in the Marine Corps, was an irrepressible rowdy among his comrades. Later, after his release from the hospital, he became unable to cope with his disabilities and the haunting memories of Nam. The resultant PTSD turns him into an alcoholic . . . and worse.
Vuong plays an interesting counterpoint role. The reader learns about how the Viets trained and operated. Vietnam was America’s first modern experience with asymmetrical warfare. Vuong was captured by marines and “defected” to become a Kit Carson Scout attached to the protagonists’ recon platoon. He later betrays marines into a Viet Cong ambush. Our three young jarheads survived, but were severely wounded, Hawkeye and Coop permanently disabled.
Estes starts the book with JT’s return home to his wife and small child. JT displays the effects of PTSD. The reader follows the narrative as JT’s violently uncontrollable outbursts terrify his wife and drive her to divorce. His anguish over her loss consumes his daytime thoughts, while his experiences in battle and thoughts of lost comrades haunt his dreams at night.
One question that hangs over the whole book is Gurney, the subject of its title. Gurney’s name appears as a passing remark in three parts of the story. His only active role is as a lieutenant temporarily assigned to the recon platoon in its last mission. He mysteriously disappears just before the final ambush. It is an unanswered question from start to finish. Why Gurney?
Another thing that grates: the story is about MARINES, not “soldiers.” Soldiers are ARMY. No self-respecting marine would accept the epithet “soldier.” The word appears salted among various episodes as an alternative for “marine.” This is probably an oversight by the editor. The word “marine” figures on at the very least half of the book’s pages.
In fact, the US Marine Corps might easily be considered a protagonist in the book. Despite the tragic outcomes of the three protagonists, pride in their Marine Corps comes through clearly.
You antes up an’ you plays the cards you bin dealt.
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