'The Things We Do to Make It Home' -- Novel Takes Us Back to Soldiers' Horrors of Vietnam
For all the soldiers' memoirs and non-fiction accounts of war's lasting impact, few books capture the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the lasting toll on soldiers and their loved ones, better than Beverly Gologorsky's novel The Things We Do to Make It Home. Gologorsky's novel depicts the lives of a group of Vietnam veterans and the women they love, tracing the arc of each couple's lives -- a story by turns tragic and inspiring, stoic and heart-wrenching -- as they struggle to live normal lives while grappling with the physical and emotional wounds of combat. Recently republished by Seven Stories Press, The Things We Do to Make It Home reveals much about both the past and the tumultuous present, as our current president decides the fate of two wars abroad and as thousands of soldiers return home scarred, like Gologorsky's characters. Beverly Gologorsky recently discussed her book with me, how she created the world of these veterans, and the parallels she sees between her novel and the present moment.
Andy Kroll: In the context of the two wars abroad, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the stories in this book feel so real, like people you could meet on the street today. Do you see the same things going on today as you saw during the Vietnam War?
Beverly Gologorsky: I think there is one very important similarity for veterans -- and that is that most soldiers during the Vietnam War, and for Iraq and Afghanistan, most soldiers are trained in a belief system. That's the only way they can kill; you have to believe. Once they got over there in Vietnam, and also in Iraq and Afghanistan, that belief system dissolved. Because these [Vietnamese] were just people; they were not monsters. These were people living their lives, and the soldiers have to kill them anyway. And the thing that happens when you do that, when you kill without a belief system, it damages your psyche. And I think all of these wars -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam -- have that in common. Once people go over there they're not sure what they're fighting for. It's completely unclear. And yet they still have to kill.
If you take a look at some of the characters in my book like [veterans] Frankie or Rod, they're not monsters. I like my characters; I like the men. I think they have tremendous potential that was totally messed up by the war. So I had to think this part through. How can some of these men, who've done some horrible things, come home and these women love them? I had to really think through what made these men so damaged. And that's when I came up with that understanding, that they had to kill without believing anymore that they were killing for any cause.
One of the reasons the book fortunately is coming out now is because of those two wars. And the repetition of that misery and damage to humans in the country as well as outside, as well as here.
Kroll: How did you create and inhabit the world of these characters and their experiences and all of their relationships?
Gologorsky: Flaubert said, "C'est moi," when they asked him about Madame Bovary. In a way, it is somewhat true. Because I was brought up in a working-class area in the south Bronx, and these are the people that I grew up with. Not literally -- I imagined them, I made them up, there's nobody in the book that actually exists. But I knew the beauticians and the nurses, and I knew the guys who worked in the pizza parlors and I knew the guys who were the mechanics, I knew the cops, etc. So their voices, particularly the women's voices, were always in my head.
As I got older and began to write, I didn't really read much literature with their voices. And I wanted to give them a voice. To me they were very important people. I must say, for me, the impetus was the women at first. My background in the movement, too: I was in SDS, part of the anti-war movement, etc. The Vietnam War was the war I grew up with, so that was as always a part of my life, too. It was the merging -- of those people I've known, those voices, the waitresses or what have you, who don't get into many novels, and that war that was there all the time.
Kroll: In this book, there's no one central character around whom the book revolves. It's an orbit of characters: it's a group of people, and these different couples that stay together or split over times. Was it hard finding the voices for all of them?
Gologorsky: It wasn't hard finding the voices. Hard is not the word. It was really important for me to make sure that their lives were dramatic enough to be interesting to everyone else. That was difficult. So that you didn't feel if you'd read about Ida you were reading about Sara Jo. I had to differentiate in my head.
At some point while I was writing, I wrote biographies for each of these people. I just made them, of course. And that allowed me to differentiate.
In hard cover the original that Random House published, the editor put a page in the front of the book called 'Cast of Characters.' And it said, 'Sara Jo: daughter of Millie and Rooster,' and so on going down. And in the original hard back, the book is dedicated to the women for whom morals were never built. The women who sacrificed and suffered that wars never pay attention to. The war impacts women who aren't there, too. So it's about that and about Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kroll: For everything I've read about PTSD and soldiers male and female coming back from combat, it just doesn't have that gripping quality that this kind of story does, when you follow these characters. Why do you think that is?
Gologorsky: I think that's the other thing about a novel. If a hundred people are killed in a bomb blast, and then you see one pair of glasses, that creates the sadness of the hundred. Because it's specific -- you go from the generalized to the particular. And in the particular lies the universal.
When 9/11 happened, I'm a new Yorker, I was in New York. The smells and everything -- the whole thing was there. And it was the oddest kind of sadness because there was nothing to grab onto. A lot of us went to give blood and stuff, and we waited at the Red Cross and friends of mine who are doctors waited down at the hospitals, and there were no bodies. No one was brought. I mean, there were a few of course, but basically they were incinerated. So they didn't need extra blood or extra doctors in the way they would've in other disasters. There was such a sadness in that moment of realizing you couldn't give blood; it was the sadness of all the people who died. Whereas you just can't take in large numbers.
One of the reasons my publisher loves the book so much is that it's a book about the Vietnam War and you never go to Vietnam. And he thought that was wonderful -- that you could resurrect the war through the lives of the people who came home as opposed to actually showing a war zone, which was being showed in many other good books, like The Things We Carried.
But I think that what I realized about a year after the book was published the first time because a lot of people said different things in reviews, and what it made me realize was that I had to write this book. It had taken me 20 years after the war to write this book, but the war had been so much a part of me that I had to do this to expiate it, to get rid of it. One literary critic said the book had shown a light in the dark closet about what that war was all about. I wasn't trying to shine a light; I just sat down at my desk and the characters were what I worked with. After I read that review, I thought that's exactly true; that's what it feels like. So my whole experience working against the war in all the ways I did is also encapsulated in that book.
Kroll: When you see references to the effects of war on veterans, there isn't always a glimpse at how are veterans and their loved ones are doing 20 years on, at least not in a narrow sense of five or six characters. That's what happens here. Was it difficult to just show what happens to them over time?
Gologorsky: It was hard for my imagination to work the transference of sympathy to the page that I was feeling for their ruined lives, when I knew they had ruined the lives of others in Vietnam. But I could not have written The Things We Do to Make It Home in the 1970s or 80s. I couldn't. I was still too close to it. It took 20 years to refract and reflect.
One of those reflections was that there are a lot of differences between Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam, but the pursuit of the war is not that different. In the sense that in Vietnam, it was anti-communism; now it's anti-terrorism. For me there's a tremendous amount of deja vu, as well as for a lot of my friends who were active during that period too. We hear things being said like, 'We'll just send a few troops.' Oh, we've heard that one before. Or: 'We're going to win the hearts and minds of people.' Give me a break. There's something about that repetition of rationale which is deja vu for me.