Dodging clichés on the front line

January 12, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

DelCorso’s Gallery, by Philip Caputo. (I’m too lazy to look up the original information.)

I’m a bit late reviewing a novel published in 1983, but I have my reasons. Someone recommended it to me based on the subject of my own upcoming book, and I scribbled down the title and kept it in the back of my mind until last week, when a copy turned up in a used bookstore in Edmonton. Caputo won a Pulitzer, right? Reading it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Caputo was in Vietnam as a soldier, and later as a journalist, so he has no shortage of authority on his topic. But his Pulitzer was for a memoir; this novel isn’t anywhere near that league. It’s just plain clumsy.

Former combat photographer Nick DelCorso has retired into a quieter career in commercial photography, but that old itch refuses to fade. When he’s offered a job covering the final NorthVietnamese assault on Saigon, he can’t pass it up. Off he goes, leaving wife and family, to battle what the cliché mongers sell as “personal demons” in the streets of Saigon. DelCorso can’t rest until he atones for his past.

How clumsy can it get? Consider this, as the press corps huddles in a hallway during an air raid: “The terrifying noises had stripped them of the mask of cynical nonchalance war correspondents usually wear to conceal their true feelings, if they have any.”

Sentences like this abound.

There is no point Caputo is unwilling to drive home with a sledgehammer. When he isn’t telling us how things are, he’s explaining his characters’ improbably lucid thoughts. And when his characters aren’t thinking, they’re making little speeches to each other, such as this conversation, in a brothel:

“First it’s Biafra this, Belfast that, then it’s so many piasters for a short-time, so many for all night. It’s all bullshit.”

“Exactly what is bullshit?”

“This is, we are. We call ourselves photographers, photojournalists when we get high-toned about it, but what are we really? Mercenaries who carry cameras instead of guns.”

Wilson rolled his eyes.

So did the reader, reflecting that “This is, we are” was a fine bit of technical flash: the characters commenting on the author’s text. It’s a postmodern masterpiece!

Perhaps not.

Unfortunately, Caputo can’t find ways to dramatize his ideas effectively. Everything must be explained; nothing arises through the action itself. It’s too bad, because the novel tries to explore war photography and our changing attitudes towards war in an interesting way.

DelCorso seems to be a composite of Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths, two of the new wave of war photographers that arose out of Vietnam. His arch-rival and former mentor, Dunlop, recalls David Douglas Duncan (who is never mentioned in the text), whose career took off in an earlier era.

Dunlop’s war looks heroic, DelCorso’s squalid and ugly; Dunlop is an artifact of WWII, and DelCorso belongs indisputably to Vietnam. Dunlop wants to find meaning in war, and show it to the reader. DelCorso wants to assault the reader’s complacent assumptions. To DelCorso, Dunlop is a fossil; to Dunlop, our hero is a pornographer.

The novel continually touches on all the questions that plague war photography: exploitation, responsibility, the pornography of violence. It’s unfortunate that it can’t find a more effective dramatic footing.

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