Friday, September 3, 2010

Sympathy for the Devil by Kent Anderson

Title: Sympathy for the Devil
Author: Kent Anderson
Publisher: Bantam (2000), originally published in 1987

Quick aside - the copyright page says: "This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition. NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED." I've never noticed a note like this before. Is this common? Is there some secret, word-omitting publication history for this book?

Sympathy for the Devil is set during the Vietnam War and, in three parts, tells the story of Special Forces Sergeant Hanson. The first part opens towards the end of Hanson's first tour and covers his attempt at life back in the States. The second part starts with Hanson, a college student, at the induction center after being drafted and his first days in-country. The third part focuses mainly on his second tour in Vietnam.

It was an interesting choice to introduce the reader to Hanson as an already hardened soldier and then swing back to who he was before. I certainly felt I had his character well in hand going into Part 2 but it became apparent that Anderson planned on using the entire book in his portrayal of Hanson. I liked that as a story-telling device and on a personal level for how it felt much like the way ya get to know people. Like when you've know someone for years and then you're suddenly surprised by new information.

The narrative had a rather clumsy feel to it so that I never settled into events, which is either just the author's style or a brilliant technique illustrative of the madness of war and such. And there is much madness in this book. This isn't one of those depressing war books punctuated by moments of humanity and hope. It's one of those depressing war books punctuated by moments of crazy and the ineffectiveness of military bureaucracy.

While Hanson's thoughts on what and who are around him are pretty clear there's also an over-arching philosophy and mode of thought portrayed by the book itself. Since Anderson was a Special Forces Sergeant in Vietnam I'm curious as to how reflective of his own experiences the book is. (Night Dogs is his follow-up to this which features Hanson as a police officer, also like Anderson which makes me think maybe this is largely the author's personal story.) Regardless, it certainly gives a peep into a part of people not often seen in everyday life. What I found just as interesting as the human aspect of the novel was the examination of political and administrative inertia. Such inertia is often more dangerous than any enemy.

You spend most of the book with Hanson but he isn't always accessible. Then these small moments come by that give a window into what he is feeling. Anderson's ability to pinpoint and lay bare these moments is extremely satisfying.

Premature crow's-feet set off her startlingly clear green eyes that made Hanson almost dizzy when he met them, embarrassing them both in a moment of unexpected sexual contact.

Anderson also includes moments of the absurd:

He looked at the ticket and began to laugh. He wadded up the little piece of green tissue paper and was about to throw it away, then realized that he'd need it as proof when he told Quinn and Silver that he'd gotten a speeding ticket.

And he's great at expressing threat and the extraordinary in a way that makes real what, for most of us, borders on the unreal:

Sixth sense is only the other five senses fine-tuned to threat. A shift in the rhythm of the silence that opens your eyes. A shudder in the pattern of shadow. The hint of some smell that brings your head up. Separately they would mean nothing, but together they are enough to lift the hair on your neck, to stir little bubbles of dread deep in the back of your brain, all of them forming like a forgotten name, right on the tip of your tongue. A group of men moving through the dark with plans to kill you gives off an energy you can feel if you pay attention to what your senses tell you.

I have a long and complicated relationship with war-centered literature (and movies). I enjoy it for many reasons, including basic education in topics I'm not familiar with and my desire for witnessing history and specialized training, but it also tears me up emotionally. I would read (and watch) more war drama but I don't have the emotional fortitude. I'd be a wreck. I often am a wreck after reading this stuff, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. However, I always enjoy the possibilities for endless discussion of socio-political topics, not to mention the idea of basic humanity. I also find I'm often frustrated by my inability to read it more critically. I'm not a soldier (couldn't be, actually, as I lack even the most basic qualities for what is required in one to be a soldier) or close to anyone who has experienced serious combat so I feel like I can never wholly believe or disbelieve what I am reading. Possibly that is simply an unexpected but perfect mirror for war in general. However, no matter how I feel after an exploration into a war story I continue to wish we weren't quite so eager to pursue wars. They are a devastating and nasty business.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two parting questions:
What is your favorite story that involves war?

Anyone want to suggest some war stories that do not revolve around the "boy scout" soldier persona or the soldier that has found a home in war because life has been reduced to its most basic tenet: survival? These seem to be what I encounter most in fiction.


  1. I always, since it was the Vietnam war I grew up with in junior and senior high, point people toward The 13th Valley by John Del Vecchio. I've never forgotten that book. I don't think it's going to be the same experience for you.

    Thanks, Rachel.

  2. Thanks a lot for the suggestion!

  3. War, cops, Asia: there's a guy who wrote a book called Blood Trail (Cook, but I think it's a pseudonym) who can write circles around almost anyone. Does anyone know who he really is? I've always suspected Anderson . . .

  4. Hey Anon, thanks for commenting. I'm not familiar with that title (but I will be soon - thanks for the recommendation) so I don't have an answer for your question. If you figure it out please swing on back by and post if you would. Cheers!