January 5, 2009

Book review: "Monastery Ridge," by Henry West

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Monastery Ridge: A Novel of the Korean War, the Second Year
by Henry West
iUniverse / ISBN: 978-0-595-46211-7

If there's anything at all that most of us remember anymore about the Korean War of the 1950s, it's usually the popular television show M*A*S*H that was set there, which ironically was actually much more a comment about the Vietnam War that was currently going on when the show first started; and that's a shame, history buffs will tell you, because it's actually the events of the "Korean Conflict" (as it's officially known) that set the tone for much of the way the second half of the 20th century was to eventually shake out. Originally gearing up just five years after World War Two, it for example set the blueprint for how much of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was to eventually play itself out -- as a series of proxy wars in emergent third-world countries, that is, ones that had been under European colonial rule for centuries until the chaos of the world war, now with a native population trying to decide whether to become a democratic republic or communist state, with both America and the USSR hoping to persuade the locals through the infusion of millions of secret troops and weapons into their petty civil wars. It was Korea that also first established the American "military-industrial complex" that Eisenhower tried to warn us about -- the entire idea of perpetual warfare as a legitimate lifestyle, a legitimate grower of the national economy, of entire trillion-dollar industries that will go under if the US isn't involved in some sort of military action somewhere on the planet at any given moment (and hopefully a lot more than one). It was Korea that gave us the concept of "career military" versus regular draftees, Korea that taught us how difficult it is to fight a traditional air-and-artillary war within lush jungle environments against seasoned guerrilla locals; it was Korea that was supposed to have taught us valuable lessons that could've saved us from Vietnam, which in turn was supposed to have taught us valuable lessons that could've saved us from Iraq.

Monastery Ridge, by Henry West

And now we have the latest volume to cover some of the events of that tumultuous affair, Korean vet Henry West's half-century-old fictionalized memoir on the subject, the slow-burning but ultimately fantastic Monastery Ridge, the latest by the now surprisingly marketing-savvy print-on-demand company iUniverse. Wait, iUniverse? That's right, iUniverse! Turns out that the company is trying these days to shake off the dubious reputation they were saddled with in the '90s when first starting out, as the producer of cheap and badly-done POD books that were then unceremoniously dumped into the world without much fanfare; the company is now paying much more attention to the highest-quality manuscripts in their catalog, assigning actual PR agents to them and getting traditional press releases and review copies out to more and more members of the media like me. And this is kind of a perfect choice for such a situation, frankly; as far as I know the only novel ever from this forty-year Silicon Valley lawyer, this is one of those books more important for posterity's sake than a literary one, a book that I can safely announce well ahead of time will be of interest only to those with a natural curiosity about war stories, and especially those who would like to know more about this particularly interesting time in history, a time that had already seen the emergence of a triumphant American superpower but none of the failures yet that were to mark the postmodern period a few decades later.

And the reason I say all this is because this book is more than anything else an attempt to rip the shiny lid off the "Greatest Generation" moniker that Tom Brokaw and his butt-licking cronies are so eager to assign this group of Americans and citizen soldiers; West's main point of this book even existing, it seems, is to show the ultra-complex, morally ambiguous outlook that fueled his entire war experience in general, which by its nature gets into all kinds of subjects not exactly for the radical-liberal pacifist in your life. If you've ever wondered about the curious elation that can sometimes come with actually killing another human being, and how to successfully curtail that once you're back in "civilized" society...if you've ever wondered about the various sexual atrocities that American soldiers were guilty of on a daily basis even then, and the desperate Asian families who would take advantage of such corruption...if you've ever wondered about the mind-numbing boredom of a "clockwork war" that produces such opportunities for vice in the first place...then you'll definitely want to check out this slim and well-written novel; and if the list just described gives you horrors just seeing mentioned, you'll want to steer well away.

And that in a nutshell is basically the main strength and weakness of Monastery Ridge at once -- that it delivers exactly what you want from a complex, well-done war drama, but exactly that and nothing else, nothing that you haven't already seen done exactly as well in numerous other projects over the decades. West's novel in fact is sometimes like a veritable checklist of war-fiction tropes that have been necessary in every classic of the last half-century -- from the slutty USO performers to the code-talking Native American communications experts, from the weasel lieutenant with daddy issues to the grizzled sergeant simply trying to keep his boys alive. But I don't want to give the impression that these are badly-done tropes, either, because they're not; indeed, if West had merely written this twenty or thirty years ago, he'd be ranked right up there with Herman Wouk and the other Modernist war-fiction masters, and with his manuscript too being one day adapted into one of those big-budget Hollywood thrillers that win giant baskets full of awards. That's both the strength and the shame of this book, is that it's good but not spectacular, something that verges on derivative at all times although rarely just falling all the way over into such territory.

Now, that said, let me admit what I mentioned before, that this is a slow-burning book that grew on me more and more, as I got more and more into it; it starts with a frankly weak first half, one designed more to show the ins-and-outs of daily life in the field during the six days out of every seven you're not getting shot at, useful from a historical standpoint but not exactly the most gripping yarn you've ever read. Once you start getting into the legitimate actioner plot that fuels the second half, though -- a drunken spontaneous killing of a fellow American soldier by a hot-headed young officer on R&R in Tokyo, and resulting cover-up -- only then does the story start deepening from both a plot and character standpoint, leading us to the final explosive blowout battle on the eponymous ridge of the book's title. Because that's an important thing to know about the Korean War, if you don't already; that other than the first year of mutual surprise offensives by both the Americans and Chinese, the entire rest of the war was essentially one giant stalemate, with massive resources being piled in by both sides to hold the same tiny little space of ground right around the infamous "39th parallel" (the same line that currently defines the "demilitarized zone" separating modern North and South Korea). And with this being mostly unchartered jungle with few transportation options, turns out that a strategically important region during this stalemate was an ancient old dried riverbed in the area, that made the quick movement of troops and tanks easy, and which could be easily guarded along the way by a whole series of abandoned little island mountains the river left behind, the "ridges" from which the war's most famous battles get their names.

The final holding of this ridge by the company we've been following all along is a legitimately thrilling escapade to finish out the book, an assault by Chinese forces during a torrential thunderstorm that is just infused with filmic-style drama from moment one. And that's why ultimately this is such a surprisingly great novel, because West works and works and actually earns this moment of legitimate greatness that he's able to get at the end; we wouldn't be nearly as caught up in the drama of the actual battle if not first getting to know all these characters for three hundred pages beforehand, and we wouldn't get to know these people so well if not for the more plodding sections of non-combat life in the first half. And besides, like I said, I suspect that West never wrote this in the first place with the expectation of being another Herman Wouk, but rather to simply record his own experiences and memories; like I said, I'm pretty sure that this is the first novel this seventy-something author has ever penned, a Korean vet and regular draftee who was otherwise a tech-industry attorney for decades before recently retiring. If this is indeed the case, then West actually has on his hands a much better thing than the simple family memento and record that so many of these kinds of projects are designed to be; he actually got a decent general-audience novel out of it too, one I think any veteran of this war would be proud to have his name on the cover of.

Like I said, it's not for everyone -- those with delicate sensibilities will want to stay away, as well as those who enjoy pretending that the 1950s was a time of chaste bland entertainment, of kiss-blowing stage-singers and the "gentlemen soldiers" who treated them with polite respect. What West ultimately turns in here is the kind of memoir we need more and more of these days, as these particular veterans start dying in large amounts for the first time; we need the glossy veneer of those times stripped off, need the raw and sometimes ugly and sometimes unfair stories that West writes about here, of the soldiers who fake post-traumatic stress disorder to get a little nurse-nookie, the soldiers more than happy to take shots during battles at even fellow Americans they don't happen to like. Like the best war stories, West shows here that there is an inherent randomness and chaos to war, that who dies and who survives has little to do with strength or brains or cunning and much more with the simple roll of the dice each new morning. That's a great thing to be reminded of, and Monastery Ridge a great novel indeed, an utterly honest record of a time in history becoming more obscure by the day, something West should be honored to now have exist so that it can be passed along to his kids, and their kids, and their kids. I encourage everyone out there with a story like this in their past to eventually sit and write it down too; in this age of print-on-demand companies and hyper-specialized audiences, you never know when you might just end up with a nice little treasure on your hands.

Out of 10: 9.2

Read even more about Monastery Ridge: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:38 PM, January 5, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |