Saturday, June 2, 2018

SAND IN THE WIND by Robert Roth

Add one more title to the list of undeservedly obscure American novels. Robert Roth's Sand in the Wind, the first major American literary work to emerge from the Vietnam War--before Dog Soldiers, before Dispatches, long before Tim O'Brien went after Cacciato--was a Book of the Month Club selection upon publication, but then both novel and author slipped into obscurity. (Perhaps the novel was a victim of its own precocity: in 1973-74, who wanted to spend 600+ pages in a war the U.S. had only yesterday extricated itself from? If Sand in the Wind had been published a few years later, it might have become canonical.) A Google search turns up more than one "Robert Roth" who might be the author of this novel but does not definitively connect any of those men to this book, so I can't answer the question "Whatever happened to Robert Roth?" He seems to have laid this one amazing book on us and promptly Houdinied himself out of the literary scene. Whatever and wherever its author is today, Sand in the Wind is a remarkable novel punctuated by scenes of astonishingly assured power. Fitting his combat experience to Edmund Wilson's textbook definition of Modernism, Roth synthesizes the Naturalistic war novel of Crane, Hemingway, Mailer and Jones with a sometimes sneaky Symbolism that looks back to Melville and Poe. This synthesis holds until about halfway through the novel, when a gruesome act of group cannibalism by an American platoon, depicted as an event of giddy, obscene enjoyment in the darkest Lacanian sense of the word, bursts the book apart in a manner akin to the breaking of the film in Bergman's Persona. After this central traumatic scene, the aesthetic of the novel seems to shift from Modernism to a kind of Postmodernism. The narrative attempts to re-establish itself, but cannot overcome its fragmentation into various types of pastiche: Heller pastiche, Altman pastiche, James Jones pastiche, etc. All of which can be easily interpreted as a flight from the unassimilable knowledge of that descent into cannibalistic horror. After such knowledge, no forgiveness--only the attempt to deny the past by leaping manically aboard any available fragment of narrative that seems to offer a moment of sense and sanity. Above all: don't look back. The novel thus uncannily predicts its own oblivion: given the chance to look back upon the trauma of Vietnam by reading Roth's book, most readers turned away and reached for a copy of Carrie. A (re-)discovery and re-evaluation of this complex novel is long overdue.

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