Just in time for Memorial Day, I started reading The Bitch Wall, a fictionalized story of real experiences in the Vietnam War. Author Dennis Lane had a book signing a few days before and little did I know he was famous around town. My friend and I walked into a book store full of his friends. The audience settled in to listen and Dennis spoke with passion, his words tumbling out so rapid fire I was glad I had researched his book a little beforehand. He explaining how this “Bitch Wall” in his artillery unit’s command bunker came to be, how it filled with graffiti that “held the thoughts of all those who had become weak, vulnerable, and crazy since arriving in Vietnam.” And that was pretty much everyone. He took photos of the wall before he left, knowing someday he would write a book about it. He explained the book is not meant to be historical, but 98% of it is what happened. The characters are composites.
Standing in line afterwards to get my book signed, I began talking to the young man behind me and learned Dennis is famous because of his work helping others, whether military veterans or the underprivileged. The young man had known Dennis for quite a while yet did not know about his service in Vietnam. I was curious then since Dennis’s stories seemed to literally explode out of his mouth during his presentation. Many combat vets can’t or won’t speak of their experiences. Dennis said “you never get over war.” He told me he felt he owed it to his combat buddies to tell their stories, and that’s why he finally opening up. He likened the Bitch Wall to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Men who were only 18 to 23 years old “created a holy thing,” a testimony of what they felt, irreverent or wise or despairing, as they lived through the special craziness that was the Vietnam War.
The Bitch Wall is Dennis’s first book and so the writing is not perfect, but the book is a fast read that bleeds truth and dumps dirt while the haze of lit joints swirls in the air. Four well-drawn main characters go to insanity and back. Dennis says the book is meant to make people uncomfortable. While there is sex (not explicit), plenty of drugs, and rock and roll, “most important is the internal struggle, what do you decide to do.” This story, while fictionalized, reflects history and our culture at the time and captures extraordinary circumstances that tested souls. As I’ve mentioned before, fictionalizing real life experiences gives the freedom to explore more ground and create a bigger story. And war stories are big, complex stories.
For another perspective on the Vietnam War, see my post about Once Upon a Mulberry Field by C.L. Huang.