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The Empty Shield
By John Bromer (reviewer)
The Empty Shield
by Giacomo Donis
(Eyewear Publishing, 2020)
This is the second book I've reviewed for The Veteran; I don't know if there will be a third.
I'll start with the author's own description of the book: "This, in short, is a Vietnam War book like nothing you have ever read before. A wild book, set in the New York subway, end of March 1972, with Vietnam veterans carrying placards like shields, half the book dedicated to Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, Herman Melville as a personal anti-war writer, lots of Zen Buddhism, LOTS of Hegel's Logic-including a personal appearance by Hegel himself, in the subway, looking for a beer. Not to mention Dostoevsky's mock execution, Lee Morgan shot to death at Slug's (near my place on Rivington Street), Mark Rothko's suicide, Monk, Coltrane, the (probable) suicide of Albert Ayler. The Fugs! I sing two Fugs songs in the subway, thinking about what a decision is and what making a decision means. Kill For Peace!"
As I said, the book is exuberant. "It is complex, extremely serious, and highly entertaining."
Shall I continue?
In brief, the story concerns a decision the author had to make when he was 21, though he began writing it when he was 69. He was 4-F, in his words a "war-hardened 4-F," and the decision - "I have a fork: pursue my (already brilliant) academic career, blow up the Williamsburg Bridge, or leave the country for good (permanent exile)." The beginning is very interesting—he presents himself at the American Consulate in Milan in 2014, wanting to renounce his American citizenship, having lived in Italy for the last 42 years. He gets chilly reception, and I'm not sure what the final resolution of that is.
That's the first 13 pages. After that, the book devolves into an almost 500 page stream-of-consciousness reconstruction of 2 days he spent riding the subway when he was 21. The author is undoubtedly brilliant, very highly educated, and has had a long time to live and think about what 1972 was all about to him. I read every word of the first 88 pages, except for the 24 consecutive pages where he analyzed the motives of Melville's Billy Budd. After that, I started skimming because I was never going to get through it any other way.
I'll spare you some of my pain, and just mention some words I encountered. Screech (a lot), Eteocles, Hermes, Zeus, Zen, Nietzsche, Hegel, Nixon, My Lai, Ghost Dance, college professors, Black Panthers, Winter Soldier. VVAW makes an appearance around pg. 303, where a footnote talks about a Wikipedia article.
In an afterword, the author tells us that "Gilda, my Zen cat, and I wrote this book in ferocious solitude." I'm supposed to be fair, so let me just say that, in my opinion, there might be a fine 100 page book in here, but as written, it is an unbearable slog (and I liked the Fugs).
John Bromer is a Vietnam-era veteran who lives in Black Mountain, NC. Someday he'll share his semi-interesting story.