JANUARY 27, 2017
SET IN 1966, Wages of War is a novel about an American civilian working as a non-combatant in Vietnam’s war zone, a place of temptation and corruption. This is a first novel for Fred Croton, who, in fact, spent that year in Saigon and similar environs working for an American construction company. In the autumn of 2016, Croton and I exchanged emails about the process of writing this first novel.
JANET STERNBURG: How, at age 80, did you come to write a novel? Had you always wanted to write one? What stood in your way?
FRED CROTON: I’ve never been a writer — and still may not be — but I’ve always been a storyteller in the oral tradition. The story of this novel simmered within me for a long, long time. What else stood in my way? Life, I suppose, with all its joys and miseries. And then one evening I sat down with my pal Ed Roski, a Marine Vet in Vietnam, and began trading tales. “You’ve got to write that down,” he told me. So it began, and here I am.
How does it relate to other work of yours? I know you’ve been a theater director and an arts administrator.
I have a bit of theater in my background, which I think has influenced my choosing to tell this story using a fair amount of dialogue. Also, since I’ve been a boy, I’ve spent a great deal of time looking at paintings and sculpture. I’d like to think this immersion has sharpened my sensibility to the world around me and facilitated my ability for description.
How long did it take?
Depends on who is counting. The aforementioned “simmering” no doubt took about 30 years. But the actual writing, and rewrite (oy vey) was about three years. The first draft came easily, too easily. Upon its completion, I excised a third of the book, each cut a palpable hit. But I found my way to writing a third revision that’s to my satisfaction.
Has its reception been gratifying — not only in the world, but in your own sense of accomplishment and artistry?
Its reception? The first phase was to get it read by book agents. I have the usual horror stories all first-time novelists go through. Throughout, I was able to fall back on the pleasure I’d had in writing and completing the damned thing, and then showing the manuscript to a few trusted friends who seemed as stunned as I at my having brought it off. One of them, Scott Chamberlin, offered to take it for his Patcheny Press. And there it was, in beautiful hardcover to have and to hold in my hands and the hands of others. The small world of my friends and acquaintances bought it, read it, and I, fearing no critique, was pleased at its reception. The great good feeling of accomplishment led me to ask myself an overwhelming question: Why haven’t you been writing all of your life?
As for artistry, I’ll leave it to others to bestow that accolade. It was never something I consciously reached for. Had I, I would have failed in the attempt, further contributing to all the defects of a first novel, so often overwrought and overwritten, that I sought to escape.
Is it based on your own experience?
I spent a year in Vietnam working for an American construction company that was similar to the one in the book. The descriptions of Vietnam came from that experience. But the narrative, the characters, and the situations in the novel are entirely fictional, based on research and my own resourcefulness. I should add that the portions of the book that look back on my hero’s early life are drawn from my own life.
Could you say a little more about how it is not based on your experiences?
Even as I sometimes dramatized aspects of my life, I also relied heavily on research into other lives and times. For example, my research allowed me to write of the Champa, an ancient civilization that controlled Vietnam for a thousand years. The vast corruption described in the novel was the result of research into congressional investigations. I marveled at the way a tidbit from the latter brought me to create a truly ugly American, my character The Money King of Vietnam. And so it went, one event or person becoming a building block to the next.
In general, what in your view is the relationship between one’s experience and fiction?
In my case, and that of many first novelists, my life led inexorably to a work of fiction, but how that evolved is a deep and abiding mystery. Melville, at 21 and in need of money, signs on to a whaler. And we have Moby-Dick, containing a line that has reverberated through my life, “I long to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts.”
Throughout a rich life in which I’ve met hundreds — maybe more — disparate people, I’ve tried to gain entrance to their lives either in conversation or by observation. I have no doubt the characters created in Wages of War reflect those encounters. It would be a fool’s game to ignore these connections. But how to explain Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Eco’s The Name of the Rose? They contain nibbles of biography but are sui generis.
I love that phrase, “nibbles of biography.” What about “nibbles” of genre? Do you see your novel as a continuum with other novels of war, from Catch-22 to recent books such as The Sympathizer?
Catch-22? If I have scratched out a scene or a sentence to match Heller’s masterpiece, I can die with a smile. I did make a pass at humor in my book, and also a bit of Grand Guignol in killings related to a Corsican drug dealer.
By definition, novels of war deal with combat and its surrounding implications. Wages of War is somewhat unique for a Vietnam novel as it deals with civilians far from battle. To quote myself: “for the first time in their lives anything that could be had they could afford, buy it, and be damned.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the beautifully written Pulitzer Prize–winning first novel, has some parallels to my story. His great success was in giving voice to the war and its aftermath from the POV of Vietnamese characters. I tried as well, through two women, to speak of the war from their perspective. The litany of betrayals he writes of cause violence and death. The betrayals in Wages of War are far more commonplace, but betrayals all the same. Finally, at the end The Sympathizer makes an optimistic call for life. At the end, my novel is a call for life as no more than the absence of death.
That’s a dark view, although one that’s earned in a novel in which death is all too present. But yes, the humor is there in Wages of War. Do you feel yourself to be in a continuum with Jewish authors — self-questioning, literate, rollicking, sexual?
A Jewish writer? Moi? Is that what I am? Since the novel is tinged with references to anti-Semitism and my hero is half-Jewish — though more skeptical than committed — I suppose I must take my place at a rear door to the pantheon of my betters: Saul Bellow and Philip Roth to name two among many. Kafka? Who knows how he might be in the bloodstream of the book?
My hero is “self-questioning” in moderation, “literate” in a somewhat pretentious way, “rollicking” as in a Good Time Guy, “sexual” no question. Sounds a lot like me. Maybe I am a Jewish writer.
What writers mean a lot to you — especially as you were thinking about and writing this book?
From the myriad of writing about Vietnam over the years, the late great David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake are still remarkable primers on the politics of that time.
As to fiction? Where to begin? Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann, Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And the overlooked The Doom Pussy by the wildly brave Elaine Shepard. All these were about war and its terrors. My novel, save for the description of the Tet Offensive’s attack on the American Embassy, is about the safer, but not-so-sane American civilians lapping from the bowl of corruption.
In the course of writing I was often bemused at how whispers from the writings of Roth, whose books bring me to laughter and tears, kept me going, as in: “Do it, try it, make it hum.” Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood slipped into my book, a wraith among sinners. Poetry was used and abused by my protagonist.
This is a novel of doubleness: the double cross, the double-faced Jew (“A Jew on my mother’s side, not my father’s”), being two-faced — did this theme and its many resonances present itself to you at the beginning, or did it reveal itself as you wrote?
One of the pleasures of this Q-and-A is to consider aspects of the novel that hadn’t occurred to me. Doubleness was there throughout, but I never named it as such. My antagonist was born into an ambivalence that carried him along throughout his life, causing his indifference to education, misgivings about marriage and family, fascination with small-time criminality, a hesitation to enter an average world of normality.
Dare I suggest that this indifference and those misgivings are a rough analogy between my protagonist’s many ambivalences and a 19-year war brought to Vietnam by our government causing untold millions of dead and injured Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, 56,000 dead Americans and thousands more grievously wounded?
At the end is your protagonist still “a second-hand soul”? Or does he resolve it when he faces the gaping hole of the exploded embassy and then his own life sentence, which is to live?
Yes, he’s known all along what he’s become. He’ll go on pushing that heavy stone, his life.
Certain words from your book stand out for me: “procurers,” “deliverance,” “devour,” “betrayal,” “redemption” — and also this phrase: “it had been a long devious day.” To me, it seems as though these are the axes around which your novel rotates. At the end, is the possibility of redemption exhausted? Do too many betrayals empty the word of its meaning?
Redemption is the solace of a believer. My protagonist has no such belief. His life is the proof of the lie. Betrayal? For him, it is the common currency of Vietnam. In his own life, he betrays others and betrays himself. All his days are devious, even while ever hopeful of rescue by some unknown circumstance. Yes, the novel rotates around encounters with the black market, with drug kings and money kings. These almost-picaresque adventures might get him jailed or killed. He is indifferent to the risks, awaiting his fate, his days long and devious.
Do you identify, as a writer, with the work of Graham Greene? With the theme of the protagonist in an unfamiliar setting, which serves as a crucible?
The Quiet American must come to mind. A stranger in a strange land. But Greene’s condemnation of his virtuous hero, so convinced of the rightness of his cause, has little to do with Wages of War save for the exotic atmospherics of both. I write of my hero’s engagement with the art, the life, and the mysteries of the place. It’s one of the few virtues I grant him. Among Greene’s novels, A Burnt-Out Case, at least for its title, is more appropriate.
You write some terrific lines: “secrets at rest in the privacy of forgetting,” which is poetic in its concision and paradox. And there’s your enjoyment of wordplay: “how to explain the feeling of being among the false and pretentious under false pretenses of his own.” Wages of War is a plot-driven novel into which you casually throw zingers of language. Do you see this as your style, your voice?
Thanks for those kind words. “Zingers of language”? My third-person narrator supplies most of those as a surrogate for my protagonist. It was there that I had to be very careful not to overwrite. I wanted to achieve the voice of a wise guy, who can also be a guy who is wise.
At some point, you characterize events as “beyond any of their” (i.e., your characters) “control.” Do you believe this? There’s an ethical heart to the book, in which responsibility — or the evasion thereof — is central. To me there are many moments when events are in your protagonist’s control, to the extent that he can choose to go along with some scheme, or not. How do you feel about this tension?
There’s a tide within the affairs of men when evil acts develop their own momentum. The yay or nay within an ethical decision also contains a “maybe” that inevitably leads my hero to various acts of chicanery. In Vietnam, so rife, so over-ripe with corruption, crookedness is a natural reaction in this world of his that knows little else.
Do you yourself like your protagonist? Do you feel sympathy or empathy with him?
I wouldn’t mind sitting at a bar with him trading tall tales. But I’d sure keep my hand on my wallet and let him pay for the drinks. We all have our hustles, large and small, leading to neither sympathy nor empathy but to some kind of recognition, and buyer beware.
Did you worry about telling a story with an antihero? Is the recognition that he has been a pawn a turning point for him?
The antihero has always been with us, in life and in literature. Was JFK an antihero? Othello? I was comfortable setting up the type for the reader’s delectation. A pawn? Let me extend the simile beyond the breaking point. Our hero has known he is a pawn all of his life. Not a knight, never a bishop, certainly no king. A pawn slowly pushing forward a square at a time. And though those squares are only black or white he knows better, advancing as deep across the board as he can. Until the inevitable capture by his so-called betters.
Are you working on a new novel? Will it too be plot driven, or do you have an urge to let your language capacities go a little wilder?
Yes, having been bitten by the bug I’m deep into a second novel, set in New York City in the 1950s, a bildungsroman of sorts, but not a memoir. In that time and place anyone with a bit of charm, an inquiring intelligence and youthful verve, was welcome. My hero, a City College student, finds himself intellectually and viscerally involved with art of all kinds. In the book, I’m trying to capture that physical feeling that comes over him when those encounters take place. It may be beyond my capacity as a writer to bring off. The plotting is bare bones as it’s developing, and your suggestion that I reach for wilder language has got me thinking.
Janet Sternburg is the author most recently of White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine (Hawthorne Books, reviewed in LARB here). Her previous memoir, Phantom Limb (American Lives, University of Nebraska) is also at the intersection of personal life and neuroscience.