Michael Herr was in New York writing the Khesanh section of Dispatches, his book on Vietnam, and hearing, now, voices, real voices in his head, the voices that became the voices of the book, saying the things he had heard soldiers say and sometimes, though not often, saying things he had not heard anyone say. The book would be full of voices – the language of Americans in Vietnam (“Mayhew, crazy fucker, he sleep bare-ass. He so tough, man, li’l fucker, the hawk is out, an’ he’s in here bare-ass.” “What’s that? About the hawk?” “That means it’s a co-o-old Mother Fucker.”
Herr had always been able to re-create the conversation of other people utterly different from himself, and he did that now: re-creating the voices he had heard in Vietnam – all wound together in the long monologue the book became. “Were the voices real?” interviewers would ask him. “They were real,” he said. But he wasn’t writing dialogue from notes. He didn’t remember, later, even taking notes on what people said – just on what he saw, the country, the people, and less and less of that as he went along. And the characters were not always exactly who he said they were. Day Tripper was a composite, Mayhew was mostly Mayhew but in real life he wasn’t called Mayhew. Sometimes Herr thought of the book as a novel, sometimes the best description for it was a “distillation” of an extreme experience “in the honest and truthful way which did not happen to always be the most factual way.”
The narrator’s voice held it all together – the scattered pieces of war: a voice deliberate, tense, holding hysteria back to give an account the narrator knows, knows without any question or doubt, must be given. It was urgently necessary that these things be told, said, understood. The Khesanh pieces were full of dread – death and dread and more death, that “laughing death-face” that hid behind the newsprint and lingered on the television screens after the news reports that denied its presence in the war. Death lingered on Herr’s every page: bodies, stacked, shoved into body bags, torn apart – the object of jokes and anguish and casual disregard. Death and love. Herr had loved the Marines, who were pathetic and fucked up and forlorn and abandoned and lost, but who had real heart. They were an embarrassment to any historical sense of masculinity, but there was something going on there, something that was very moving….
Esquire announced the imminent publication of Dispatches in “Backstage,” October 1969, when the second Khesanh installment ran, but Dispatches did not appear. Herr was living with Valerie Elliott, who worked for Herr’s agent, Candida Donadio. Elliott would say to Donadio, “He doesn’t write, he doesn’t write anything.” And Donadio would say, “You must understand, writers spend years thinking. They just spend years thinking and thinking.”
In fact, Herr was writing, but slowly. Elliott would come home and he would have the television on, and he would be lying on the sofa, and writing on a yellow pad: a few lines, dot-dot-dot, then a blank line, and a few more lines. He was trying to give the Esquire material a frame that would make Dispatches a book – a real book with a narrative that he that he could tell was there, even if no one else could. But the high that had carried him almost all the way had come to an end: he had come home from his adventure in Vietnam, virtually the only one of his New York set who had gone to Vietnam, and he had come home unhurt, full of energy and ego and vanity.
Then two colleagues from Vietnam, photographers Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, went off to Cambodia and never returned, and Life photographer Larry Burrows died in a helicopter accident over Cambodia. A breakdown that Herr would come to feel had been lurking for many years, at least ten, a breakdown he had avoided by moving fast through the sixties, descended on him. He had felt it coming during the summer of 1969, then a year later it hit him hard. He had seen things in Vietnam he really shouldn’t have seen – things he had not prepared to see. He had had pretensions, ambition, and he had gotten in over his head, gone to an extreme place where he was not prepared to go. He had begun to sense what was in store for him when someone in Vietnam asked him, “Are you a reporter?”
“And I said, ‘No, I’m a writer.’ And he said, ‘ Well, be careful, ’cause where you’re going you can’t use an eraser.’
“And I knew I was being told something of extreme profundity. It really made my blood run cold.
“You know, I was looking at bodies – but I didn’t believe – I saw this guy shot across the aisle from me in a helicopter, and that didn’t do it. Nothing that I was seeing did it, and then this guy said that to me and it was like –
“I’ve often wondered where that guy is and wished I could speak to him. Thank him.”
Michael Herr talked with me about writing Dispatches when I visited him and his wife Valerie Elliott at his home near Syracuse in late September, 1993. This passage is an excerpt from my book, It Wasn’t Pretty, But Didn’t We Have Fun: Esquire in the Sixties (W.W. Norton, 1995).