Fatal Light is one man's story of his experiences in the Vietnam War and his struggles to acclimate to a routine life after his return home. This sometimes surreal and dream-like story is told in the form of short vignettes that follow an unnamed soldier as he is drafted and assigned duty as a combat medic. Leaving behind the commonplace world of high school and camaraderie, he embarks on a journey half a world away and forges his way into unknown terrors. Sprinkled throughout the portrait of the meaningless brutality that is war, the soldier reflects on memories of home, family and the love he left behind. As his tour continues, the young man is enveloped by the chaos of his rescue missions, the unpredictability of warfare, and atrocities that each side perpetrates upon the other. Very soon, the foundations of his personality begin to shift, turning him from a typical man into a complex and brooding soldier who has many difficulties in digesting and understanding just what it is he is doing there in the jungle. As his service slowly creeps forward, he is put in many diametrical and puzzling situations, and even the accolades he receives cannot erase the pain of his compatriots' deaths and the moral shift he must accomplish to kill the enemy. Upon returning home, he finds that his actions in battle are hard to forgive and even harder to comprehend. He has returned a virtual shell of the man who left home three years earlier. This meditation and reflection on war dramatically shows the way in which combat and adversity can forever change the spirit of those who are called to perform the noble action of protecting their country.
While I appreciated the subdued art of this book, at times I found the prose to be mildly unfocused and at other times too figurative. It was occasionally bothersome to lose the narrative to the lyricism and poetic language that the author chose to place amidst the story. The shift in language was sometimes abrupt, and followed no discernible pattern. And while I thought the plot of the story was handled very well, illustrating the changes that force their way into the psyche during adversity, I thought that the book would have been slightly more compelling had the author chose to focus more on the external aspects of the war rather than his intense focus on the inner struggle of the soldier's foray into apathy and disillusionment. There was much page space devoted to reminiscence, which I think undermined the power and flow of the story. In fact, only a few of the scenes contained descriptions of battle and its aftermath. I take it that this was meant to be more of a myopic story focused mostly on the reactions and emotions of its narrator, rather than an account of specific actions of war. I also found it a bit hard to relate to the soldier, as even in the opening scenes he seemed subdued and distant, a situation that only became more pronounced as time moved forward. I never really saw him evince strong emotion or react with the characteristic trepidation that a soldier naturally feels in the uncertainty of war.
On the other hand, I liked the structure of the story and felt that the episodic way of arranging the chapters and narrative were extremely well done. This technique gave the feel of smoothness and flow to the story, and the short chapters encompassed all the activity of the plot brilliantly. Despite the problems that I had with the shift of language style and the slight character portrayal, I found the book to be tremendously moving and thought provoking. In essence it was like poetry, albeit a poetry of the savage and dark variety. I actually think I will be re-reading this book as a way to glean more understanding of it, and also to experience the language in a different mindset. As a short work of fiction on the life-altering aspects of war, this book was both edifying and illuminating, and as time passes, its message has began to take a deeper root in my consciousness. This story is one of gravity and importance, and despite the problems I had with the book, I found it to be a work of an intelligent and sympathetic author.
Regardless of my opinion, I believe that this book should be read by anyone attempting to understand the impact of war on man's fragile spirit. The book is not only timely in regards to the current political situation, but in the way that it captures the ambiguities and fragility of mans existence. This is also a must read for those who are interested in war literature. Although it was not what I was expecting, I did ultimately find this an interesting book. A short and cerebral read.