Wednesday, July 29, 2015

R & R, by Mark Dapin

Staff review by Chris Saliba

R & R, a war novel set in Vietnam, is both violent and comic. It often has the power to shock as it describes psychopathic males in wartime. Author Mark Dapin has achieved something brilliant and striking.

Mark Dapin’s new novel R & R opens with a scene that veers between the grotesque and the darkly comic. During heavy monsoon rain the coffin of a middle-aged Vietnamese man is dislodged from its burial place in the R & R town of Vung Tau and carried to a local bar that doubles as a brothel. Two drunk military personnel desecrate the corpse, treating it like a marionette doll. There’s clearly not one iota of respect for the local Vietnamese. The scene is like something out of Shakepeare’s Titus Andronicus, or fellow Elizabethan Christopher Marlowe’s revenge tragedy The Jew of Malta, as Dapin skillfully mixes farce and gratuitous violence. This is a literary motif  that continues throughout the novel.

R & R is set in 1967, in the town of Vung Tau, which is miles away from the front line of the Vietnam War. John ‘Nashville’ Grant is an American military policeman working in the town. His new partner, Shorty, is a somewhat idealistic and naive young man from Bendigo, Australia. He’s been nicknamed Shorty because he’s so tall. To say that Nashville is jaded is an understatement. He doesn’t seem to care for anything at all, besides getting laid by the local prostitutes and drinking. Nor is he particularly interested in his job. He confesses to having done no paperwork and is happy doing as little as possible. Shorty, by contrast, is conscientious, always trying to do the right thing, but he is yet to learn how the local politics actually works. He is often mocked by Nashville for being so wet behind the ears.

For both men, their main trouble is locating and dealing with a fellow colleague, the violent, even psychopathic Sergeant TJ Caution. He’s gone missing, and is responsible for all sorts of mayhem. In many ways, TJ Caution is the most compelling character of the whole novel. He is extremely violent and nihilistic, yet Dapin gives him an undeniably comic aspect. A smile involuntarily curls on your lips as you read some of his wittier dialogue, but you’re glad you’re nowhere near him. As mentioned above, a black, Marlovian humour, like something you’d see on the Elizabethan stage, permeates the novel.

R & R is a remarkable achievement. Writing a novel with several of the main characters being  basically psychopathic, yet imbuing them with humour, is no easy task to pull off. Dapin controls his narrative superbly, with the action often becoming quite explosive, yet never running off the rails. He also has a wide cast of wonderfully developed supporting characters that gives the story a richness and believability.

Often frightening and disturbing, R & R has the power to shock as it describes men’s violence and nihilism.

R & R, by Mark Dapin. Published by Viking. ISBN: 9780670078202 RRP: $32.99

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