The Austin Chronicle

Book Reviews

Reviewed by John Dicker, September 16, 2005, Books

My Detachment: A Memoir

by Tracy Kidder

Random House, 208 pp., $24.95

It's hard to say if the memoir is rigged with more booby traps than any other genre, but it sure seems that way. Most never transcend the narcissistic coma induced by perpetual pats on the "I" key. Others offer entire life stories when only a few years bear mentioning. In My Detachment, Tracy Kidder dodges these land mines (and others) by limiting the scope to his tour in Vietnam.

While most treatments of the war focus on the combat experience, Kidder's Nam was confusing, isolating, and safe. A product of finishing schools like Andover and Harvard, he was as unlikely a candidate for combat as George W. Bush himself. And not surprisingly, his reasons for enlisting were less political than pragmatic. Aiming to get in early and ride out his tour Stateside, it was to his horror that orders came for Vietnam.

Despite his proximity, Kidder says the war remained "an abstraction. Dots on a map." Contrary to popular cinematic representations, Kidder notes that most who served in Vietnam never saw combat. Working in a radio research unit, he was far more afraid of commanding officers than Vietcong.

Then there were his friends back home, who assumed he was ducking bullets. Kidder details how he took advantage of their naiveté by intimating experiences he never had. It's not a predicament that begs much sympathy, but it's a predicament nonetheless. There he was, a literary tyro hoping that a war he opposed might lend his life a bit of gravitas – think Hemingway – but what kind of character is built drinking third rate beer listening to Simon & Garfunkel?

While a lot of memoirs veer toward shocking confessions, Kidder offers a gentler indictment of his younger self. Yet he doesn't shirk away from unflattering moments, as evidenced by this missive to an ex-girlfriend:

"I am getting to be a great comfort to myself. Soon integrity will have me in her clutches. And speaking of integrity, I rescued a pathetic little whore from the ocean today. God knows what she was doing there besides drowning."

Who is this guy? Kidder seems to be asking, even as he tries to explain. There's a peaceful distance to My Detachment, a welcome break from the unprocessed emotional seepage typical of so much first-person writing. What Kidder realizes is that however much it might conceal a lie, sometimes "the hint of a terrible war story was the best war story of all." Sometimes, however, the best war stories are also true.

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