In Pharaoh’s Army
[Reading Challenge 2018]

In Pharaoh’s Army

by Tobias Wolff
Vintage Books, 1995

[Challenge # 24: A book about war, on the lines or the home front, fiction or nonfiction.]

For my War is Hell selection I originally chose A Delicate Truth by John le Carré, and was stoked to read it because I had recently enjoyed the 2016 BBC adaptation of The Night Manager starring Tom Hiddleston. In my perpetual juvenilia I always considered le Carré one of those grown-up writers that all intelligent grown-ups should read, eventually, to be a well-rounded grown-up who understood the cold-blooded machinations of the Cold War and the deceitfulness of human nature. The truth is though, I couldn’t get into it. I filed it under “an acquired taste. “ And that’s OK. I love fantasy writer Tanith Lee, and for many people, she’s an acquired taste. Oddly, the two authors are thematically and stylistically very similar – tart verging on sour, cynical, floribund in prose – that I wonder why one and not the other.

The replacement book, In Pharaoh’s Army, by Tobias Wolff, was a collection of personal memoir stories, almost essays in human psychology, about the author’s experiences during the Vietnam War. They weren’t vivid and full of action as I expected from the cover blurb but dry, ironic, sometimes bitter, and often humorous. Esquire or Playboy magazine material. They was some great writing in them, and by that I mean the author could describe an event or personality precisely and concisely… prose that was liquefied almost, rendered into basic nutrients. One particular essay I’d give four stars to. It would have been great in a college-level textbook anthology. Here’s an excerpt from it where he describes a well-off friend of his who is visiting a Vietnamese elder in his home:

More than ever I was struck by his fluency, not just in the flow of his words but in the motion of his hands and the set of his mouth; the way he ate and took his tea; his elaborate courtesies. He did it all with such a flourish, such evident pleasure – how happy and assured he was in his possession of these peoples’ admiration, how stylishly at home in this alien place, on this hard floor, surrounded by wonder-struck villagers, Yet I could see that his greatest pleasure came not from mastery of this situation but from out observation of his mastery.

However, I didn’t get the war flavor that I wanted. The stories could have been happening in the present day.  They didn’t convey the writer as a callow young man born in a certain time and place. They weren’t too self-reflective and didn’t come to any conclusions. The writer seemed to acknowledge that his younger self was something of a jerk, yet he came across as a far bigger jerk than what he said he was. I can guess it’s because the book was published in 1994. If he’d written it today, there’d be more about race and class and how females were treated. For example, in one essay, the author was harassing a Vietnamese woman who clearly didn’t want to talk to him, and that made me uncomfortable. There was also a part where he adopts a dog the Vietnamese soldiers he is working with want to eat, and at the end of his service there, they do cook the poor dog in a stir fry and serve it to him at his going-away dinner. That was something I did not want to read about, at all, dog lover that I am.

So, an ambiguous read for me. I did not care for the events overmuch but enjoyed the writing style.

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