Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dispatches author Michael Herr dead at 76

Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, the brutal and beautiful Vietnam War narrative that stands as the most artistically impressive book yet written about the American way of war, has died at 76. It is perversely appropriate, given Herr's status as a pillar of countercultural New Journalism, that a Washington Post headline writer flubbed the obit header ("Vietnam War reporter Michael Herr, who helped write ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ dies at 76") by failing to lead with Dispatches. However impressive and culturally significant his contributions to the two named films, Herr deserves to be remembered--and, more importantly, repeatedly reread--as the author of Dispatches, a masterpiece of American prose that combines Esquire-style literary journalism, Beat Generation cool, jazz hipster improvisation, and psychedelic rock n roll surrealism to produce a book that was not just about but of the American war in Vietnam. He wrote the war in its own language--analogous to the way Jimi Hendrix in "Machine Gun" and the Woodstock "Star-Spangled Banner" evoked the war by appropriating its sounds--and found in that language, from the laconism of long-range reconnaissance soldiers to the endless bitching of grunts to the terribly realized fantasies of a John Wayne-addled generation, a ferocious American polyphony that belied the monologic government/corporate/media 'official story' of the war. Dispatches is war reporting as high art (at least as high as Hemingway's and Malaparte's); it fuses politics and prose poetry better than any American book since All The King's Men; there's probably not a writer alive who doesn't read it with envy.

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