The Mark— Reviews
- Ron Rosenbaum in his column "The Edgy Enthusiast" for The New York Observer,
February 13, 1995
What is it about Vietnam books that makes them notorious for their belatedness? Michael Herr was famous for years for not delivering the manuscript for 'Dispatches' before finally, deservedly, becoming famous for how good it was. Neil Sheehan became even more famous for failing to deliver his Vietnam book, 'A Bright Shining Lie,' which took some two decades of dedication and desperation before it arrived to much praise and a Pulitzer Prize. Like the war, their work was a quagmire; unlike the war, it was worth it.
And now the latest and perhaps the last of the Lost Platoon of Vietnam writers is about to merge from his own personal sojourn in the jungle, this one a full quarter-century long. I must admit, I approached 'The Mark,' by Jacques Leslie, with some trepidation. Although our paths had crossed before, I'd never really spoken to him until a brief conversation a couple of years ago when he was in the last throes of completing his memoir. He'd been thrown into Vietnam as a 24-year-old correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in the early 70's, at the height of the Final Frenzy. There, he'd won awards for his investigations into the notorious 'tiger cage' torture cells our allies used on dissidents. He stayed to the bitter end in Phnom Penh. He took the last flight out, but had never really been able to leave. It had left its mark on him, the indelible 'mark' of the title. And after talking to him, I felt afraid that the book he finally finished would be too heavily freighted, overwrought with the weight and the wait.
But he seems to have worked his way through complexity, not to simplicity but to a remarkable lucidity. He's produced a nearly pure narrative of wide-eyed clarity purged of ostentatious soul-searching, geopolitical theorizing and apocalyptic special effects-- we've had all that before. What he has to offer is the texture of the search for truth in a landscape of lies. It reads almost like a coming-of-age novel, albeit a coming of age in hell. An American innocent abroad, suddenly forced to navigate murky and treacherous currents, paddling up shit creek to the heart of darkness. In a way, I was reminded of another Mark Twain work, his memoir of his apprenticeship as a riverboat pilot on another Big Muddy-- 'Life on the Mississippi,' like 'The Mark' a work about navigation as epistemology. The appeal of Mr. Leslie's book a quarter-century after the fact reminds us that in some ineradicable way, all of us, even those who were never there, are-- as the song goes-- 'Still in Saigon.'
- Whit Andrews in WRITER-L, a narrative nonfiction listserv, on May 16, 1995
Jacques Leslie falls into an assignment that, in retrospect, was one of the most coveted posts in the pantheon of journalism: Indochina during the Vietnam War. His story is not that of what took place in the war, however: This is not a mishmash of reworked scrapbook memories. It is a thoughtful examination of his life changed, what the war stripped away from him and what it left behind.
Leslie's tour in Vietnam as a war correspondent makes a serendipitous subject for a memoir. Journalists especially have much to gain from his decision to peel his heart in print; he is to be commended for voicing what is worst about our business articulately. He is also to be commended for striving to voice what is best about us, most clearly through implication if murkily, sometimes, through exposition.
There is an added dimension of meaning for the readers of the list for which this review is written. A memoir is the most familiar form of literary journalism: Through description of reality, a theme is outlined. The theme in this case is so profound as to be elusive, and I suspect that the average reader will find he or she differs from others in interpretation of what exactly the notion that gives the book its title and mission really is -- The Mark.
Leslie defines "The Mark" loosely in his initial examination as the need to be in Vietnam, to cover the war, to immerse himself in its boiling confusion. We also learn that he believes at first that the mark can be soothed only by derring-do, such as being wounded, being in combat, being the first journalist in Viet Cong territory.
And it is this first incarnation that "the mark" rings somewhat like "the mark of the beast," that tattoo with which Satan is said to afflict his minions. Leslie is not a pleasure to be with in his callow youth, and he knows that. He is at 25 what many of us are. He is sure of his convictions, aching for proof of adulthood, fascinated by depravity.
Where Leslie is most convincing for an audience of journalists is in his self-revelation, which I suspect rings particularly true for most of us. He writes of marking off accomplishments in his lexicon of courage, and then of the dirty incompleteness when he is either commended or ignored for them. When his editors mangle his copy, he is indignant. When they speak well of it, he is disappointed, supposing this must mean it is flawed. Much of his discussion of the relative importance of inside and outside pages, soft and hard leads, may only be valuable to the readers in his audience who are also writers. But to us, it is a head-nodding roster of detail. Yes, we can imagine that frustration. Yes, we know that when we are young, we are gloriously, solitarily right, and when we are older, we wish sometimes we still felt that way.
There are occasional nods to the landmarks of the war, even though Leslie's account is of the clapped-out, fatty end to the fighting, when Nixon was president, Tet had come and gone and Kissinger was arguing over what shape the negotaiating table would take. Leslie chooses Sydney Schanberg, the American half of the Schanberg-Dith Pran friendship depicted in "The Killing Fields," as his grail and nemesis combined. Schanberg is depicted as an arrogant, supremely competent journalist who stays apart from the pack at the Cambodian hotel where the journalists stay, who gets to a bombing site first and alone, who is always willing to take the extra step, commit the extra indignity, to get the story. He turns a press briefing into a harangue when he knows more about a U.S. bombing error than the attache. As the book wends to a close, he runs an official off the road to force him to answer a question. Schanberg is a human incarnation of The Mark, the man Leslie wants to be until he realizes that the grail is empty, the nemesis armed with a toy weapon.
It is here, as Leslie seeks to describe the profound change in his spirit, that the narrative becomes harder to understand. Just as someone who has had any kind of epiphany finds his or her best audience in those who share the new, heightened state, so Leslie is constrained by how much his reader can sympathize. But the words may provide a vehicle to the revelation, as religious texts have guided countless millions to their own life events. Leslie's final calculation of the nature of The Mark is heartening even as words alone, and believeable as a reason to live and work in the business of telling true stories. He got in a few years the experience and trial that most of us build up over more time, and burned out faster.
A memoir by a journalist of Leslie's sort is a touching thing. It seems unlikely that he received a huge advance. He is not writing a tell-all. Every page rings true, even the ones that he causes to ring hollow and sad. He has not chosen to tell us anecdotes which surround him rather than illuminate him, and the book is not smug. He has lived long enough to see his path behind him, and shows us its curves with the familiarity of long reflection. What might have been a gonzo book about wacky Vietnam, or another I-told-you-so by a journalist who knew all the time that South Vietnam would fall and that Robert McNamara knew in his heart that all was folly, is instead an intensely personal book. If it stumbles now and then, it does so from ambition, not from tinny falsity.