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Soldier in Paradise: A Novel

Soldier in Paradise: A Novel

by John Mort

John Mort's compelling first novel embodies both the Vietnam combat experience and the sad aftermath for those who underwent it.

James Patrick ("Irish") Donnelly flees the Missouri Ozarks with his life in shambles. His house has burned down, he's divorced, and he's estranged from his young son. On Florida's Gulf Coast, Irish joins a group of Vietnam veterans,


John Mort's compelling first novel embodies both the Vietnam combat experience and the sad aftermath for those who underwent it.

James Patrick ("Irish") Donnelly flees the Missouri Ozarks with his life in shambles. His house has burned down, he's divorced, and he's estranged from his young son. On Florida's Gulf Coast, Irish joins a group of Vietnam veterans, one of whom reminds him of a soldier he knew in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

That soldier is Norman Sims, an awkward, naive young Oklahoman, who shoots himself in the foot and becomes an object of ridicule. And yet only a few weeks later he leaps upon a machine gun in the middle of battle and saves his entire company. Norman's doomed love for a Vietnamese woman and his heroic acts (there are several) are a kind of inspiration out of the distant past, and Irish pulls himself together and returns to Missouri, prepared for fatherhood and a new midlife romance.

The novel alternates between the "stateside" chapters after the war (containing Irish's past and present history) and the Vietnam chapters dramatizing the war, creating a tension back and forth in time as well as geography. We participate in the trauma of combat in crisp and authentic detail, and we witness the effect of that experience on Irish. Through his wry first person narrative we become acquainted with this bookish, reluctant soldier and his fellow infantrymen in the jungles and mountains of Vietnam and come to know him as the distanced, psychologically wounded narrator who slowly climbs back into a productive and satisfying life.

Transcending any "political" focus, Soldier in Paradise dramatically renders the alienation of Vietnam veterans, ordinary men who've had an extra burden to bear because of the protracted, brutish character of an unpopular war that never came to a satisfactory end. Though this is a war novel, it is also a story of love—romantic, paternal, fraternal—and of the power of memory and the healing power of putting one foot in front of the other to find a way to live in a seemingly meaningless world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With a refreshing lack of bombast or melodrama, first novelist Mort offers an insightful, affecting look at the complex personal consequences of war--specifically Vietnam--on the lives of its veterans. James Patrick "Irish" Donnelly, a reluctantly enlisted infantryman, narrates his story in direct, candid chapters alternating between his experiences in Vietnam and his life in the U.S. before and afterward. Stateside chapters chronicle Donnelly's troubled relationship with his father, the breakup of his marriage, his migration from Missouri to Florida and his falling in with a group of variously dysfunctional fellow veterans who raise money by selling their artwork. Overseas chapters capture not only combat memories but the daily grind and the psychic wear and tear of the job. Mort's portraits of Irish's fellow soldiers are lovingly drawn. There's Lieutenant Sherry, a Harvard man; Ransom, a serious black sergeant who once saved Irish's life; C.C. Ryder, "who got high every morning and did his best to stay that way." Most potently, there's Norman Sims, an unsophisticated private from Oklahoma who becomes Irish's special project as Sims stumbles haplessly from medal-winning heroism to emotional frailty, till finally he's beyond help. The vets whom Irish bonds with in the U.S. are a motley group, each man scarred in his own way. Most striking is Otto Sanchez, a double amputee. Irish soon realizes what his presence means to the group: "It's a nasty thing to say, but I think having Sanchez among us was comforting, because he made it clear how much worse things could be." Mort's unsentimental narrative draws the reader deep into Irish's story with a consistent air of authenticity and frankness, eschewing the emotional manipulativeness and ax-grinding of flashier Hollywood versions. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this fictional memoir, James Patrick Donnelly, a.k.a. "Irish," recalls his tour of duty in Vietnam and his subsequent difficulties back home. In 1969, battle-seasoned Irish is assigned to watch over Norman Sims, the proverbial new guy, who promptly shoots himself in the foot. Sims later redeems himself with reckless acts of bravery, falls in love with a Vietnamese boom boom girl, and eventually ends up in military prison like a modern-day Billy Budd. Donnelly's narrative moves from Vietnam to the United States in alternating chapters, contrasting his honorable military career with a succession of postwar humiliations. Sadly, many of the defining details of the war--the drugs, the rock'n'roll music--have become tired clich s, and it is increasingly difficult to portray the experience in fresh and meaningful ways. Books such as Thom Jones's The Pugilist at Rest (LJ 4/15/93) and Stewart O'Nan's The Names of the Dead (LJ 3/1/96) prove that it isn't impossible. This book is a solid and affecting addition to the Vietnam canon, but it never manages to transcend the constraints of the genre. Recommended for comprehensive collections of Vietnam literature.--Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch., Los Angeles Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A never exaggerated and always engaging first novel that explores the whole of a Vietnam GI's life, by Kirkus contributor and former Booklist editor Mort (the collections Tanks, 1987;The Walnut King, 1990, not reviewed). Nicknamed "Irish" by his fellow soldiers, James Patrick Donnelly comes from southern Missouri, where his boyhood life was poor, mean, and unenlightened, his father (who never once writes his son a card or letter the entire time he's in Vietnam) a bully who, after his wife dies of cancer and he loses his farm, takes up with another woman on the patently false pretense that he's going to marry her. Even so, this is the father who in one way or another continues to guide the son, even after the war, when, finding himself in psycho-emotional free-fall ("There were so many jobs I can't remember them all. Seventeen, was it, in twelve years?"), Irish heads for Florida ("When I was a boy, my father, tough old George Donnelly, would talk of Florida as though it were Paradise"). Irish's hapless involvements with women there, with other veterans, with one job after another, are offered up against the backdrop of those scenes in Vietnam itself that form the novel's backbone, unifying past and present. In Vietnam, Irish meets Norman Sims, the awkward and off-putting Oklahoma rube, patriot, fundamentalist—and instinctively courageous hero—who will eventually become Irish's alter ego and tragically lost brother. Before that stage of recognition can be reached, however, the reader will be taken through swamp, plain, paddy, and jungle with Irish's beleaguered platoon, through stages of death, suffering, horror, misery, irony, pathos, and humor that will finally allow thestory to cohere, giving epiphany (especially through Sims's astonishing end) and the promise of wholeness to its thinking narrator's previously shaken and uncentered life. Intelligent, sensitive, and unflaggingly honest: a novel deserving of its place among the chronicles not only of that war but of its era.

Product Details

Southern Methodist University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.47(w) x 9.35(h) x 0.79(d)

Meet the Author

JOHN MORT served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 as a radio operator with the 1st Cavalry Division. He received his MFA in writing from the University of Iowa in 1974 and his MLS in 1976. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in 1992, he is a librarian, columnist, and reviewer whose previous books are the story collections Tanks (1987) and The Walnut King (1990). He lives in Missouri.

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