Published in 1985, the book explores post-Vietnam War America, specifically the South of rural Kentucky. The struggles of local veterans are seen through the eyes of 18-year-old Sam (Samantha) Hughes, whose father Dwayne was killed in the war before she was born. Sam lives with her Viet vet uncle, Emmett, and might go to school at the University of Kentucky or she might get a job and marry her boyfriend, Lonnie. She's rooted in a specific place but rootless, too, as are most 18-year-olds. She keeps asking questions about the war but nobody, especially the vets who meet with Emmett every morning for coffee, want to give her any answers.
In one passage, Sam ponders a photo of her "soldier boy" daddy who was about her age when he died:
She stared at the picture, squinting her eyes, as if she expected it to come to life. But Dwayne had died with his secrets. Emmett was walking around with his. Anyone who survived Vietnam seemed to regard it as something personal and embarrassing. Granddad had said they were embarrassed that they were still alive. "I guess you're not embarrassed," she said to the picture.In the mid-1980s, the war years were fresh memories. Mason's epigraph is from Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," possibly one of the most misunderstood rock songs in American history.
I'm ten years burning down the roadSpringsteen's lyrics are sprinkled throughout the book, as are songs by the Beatles, Stones, Creedence -- all the oldies from the era. The soundtrack of the Vietnam War, as one author recently called those tunes. Pop culture references abound, as do mentions of Americana: Wal-Mart, strip malls, muscle cars, Budweiser, and so on. Writing teachers sometimes tell their charges to be sparing with contemporary references, as it might date their work. Bobbie Ann Mason uses these references in order to date her work from the mid-80s, when veterans and non-veterans alike were trying to make sense of a lost crusade that nearly ripped this country apart. This style was sometimes referred to as K-Mart Realism. This style was at its zenith when I attended grad school 1988-1991. It was shorthand for all of those white folks who once populated rural Kentucky and wide-open-spaces Wyoming. Whether draftees or volunteers, these men went to "a foreign land to kill the yellow man." They returned hoping to marry their high school sweethearts and get a job in the mines or in the factories that powered the 1970s economy. Many disappointments awaited them. Their girlfriends and high school pals had moved on. They didn't want to hear about Vietnam. Neither did older vets, the Greatest Generation, fathers of the whiners and complainers who came back from Vietnam. "Get over it," So they only talked about it with other veterans oif they just dropped out, as did Emmett, who doesn't work and spends his time watching M*A*S*H and recycling cast-off goods, much as the VC used to re-purpose all of the material the GIs threw away.
Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to run
By 1985, this economy had begun to disappear, Mines and textile mills and factories were shuttered or moved overseas for cheaper labor. To Mexico, Indonesia and, ironically, a newly energized Vietnam. Reaganomics worked to destroy unions, the foundation of blue-collar America. Vietnam veterans tended to blame liberal elites for this reversal of fortune. They were the spoiled hippie college kids who caused us to lose the war. Their love for the spotted owl and pristine wilderness killed the logging and mining industries. Their political correctness have us everything from women's lib to gay rights to Barack Obama in 2008 to -- yes -- The Donald in 2016.
Mason's characters are wonderful. The book begins with Sam, Mamaw and Emmett driving from Kentucky to Washington, D.C., in a beat-up VW bug Sam just bought from Vietnam vet Tom. We then are transported back to Hopewell in the months leading up to the trip. The book ends at The Wall, no surprise since its presence looms large throughout the book, even though it's off-stage most of the time. This a a fitting remembrance to the Vietnam War. Remember that the memorial was referred to by one opponent as a "black gash of shame." It now is almost a sacred site for Vietnam vets, home to motorcycle rallies for wounded vets and pilgrimages by vets and their families, such as the Hughes clan of Kentucky.
I'm not spoiling "In Country" to tell my readers than it ends at The Wall. The reflective surface of The Wall often leads to eerie juxtapositions, as when Sam looks at her father's name and realizes that it's her name too and she can see his face in hers. Or in veteran writer Yusef Komunyakaa's 1988 poem "Facing It:"
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.