Have I ever stepped into a character so effortlessly? Lived and moved in one so intimately? Is there a greater gift of art than empathy? Meet Tom, Baron Wormser’s creation, a reluctant soldier shattered and grieving over the child he killed in a village in Vietnam, a girl who may have been blind, stumbling toward him holding her homemade doll that he and his buddies mistook for a grenade.
Tom takes collateral damage by his action. What is shattered throughout Tom is not the fragments of a bomb but a book: King Lear. Tom returns from the theater of war with the tragedy of a play embedded in his psyche, and the characters, like familiar spirits, speak forth their lines from the play through Tom—spontaneous utterances responding to the situation of the moment—the improvisational theatre of Tom’s life-after-war, his pilgrimage on the road to redemption.1
Tom cannot rest for the wounding of his conscience. The book opens and we are thrown into a storm of “Endless swearing, a hoarse, braying wind of words … swearing at those who were there and those who were not, at the army and the enemy, at death and life: everything blasted, withered, and coated by the tongue of injury. The question behind each insult being and mockery being: What in the vast scheme of motley doings conspired to put me here?”
Tom finds the answer in his childhood—the school playground. The opening and closing lines are from King Lear, framing and illuminating this passage like a wondrous diorama:
World, world, O world!
There always would be some girls on the playground with their dolls. … I can still see how serious their faces were when they were playing. It wasn’t really playing. It was practice for being moms, for caring.
The guys were running around yelling and pointing their fingers at each other and going bam you’re dead.
… The teacher was strolling around thinking some adult thought. She might as well have been the president.
How far my eyes may pierce I cannot tell.
There is a slight revision in the closing line from Lear, and this is significant: “How far your eyes may pierce I cannot tell” is the actual text. Tom personalizes it — steps into the play and revises it, and by so doing, begins to change himself. He adopts and adapts the play. He sees and acknowledges the connection between the play-acting of his childhood and the taking of life in the theater of war.
How far does Tom see? “I lie on the bed and see to the other side of the world. It’s daytime and the village is still there. A little girl is playing with the doll. She’s very careful because this doll is made of some sticks and could fall apart real easy. She’s very careful because it could blow up. She understands that.”
Tom repeats a version of this scene whenever the circumstance of his journey triggers the memory of it. When he’s visiting his sister Evie and she hears him crying in his room she thinks it’s trauma. Tom has a more practical view: “Something’s broken in me. I’m trying to fix it, but it’s broken.” By his tears he will soften, mold, and refashion his broken self.
It’s the fall of 1982. Tom is at the end of his ten-year road journey by bus — “Over the years since my return to American civilization, I move around the woman circuit—sisters, mother, on-and-off lovers.” He will take one final trek across the country—from Santa Fe to Chicago to Washington, DC — to visit his three sisters, Evie, Amy, and Paula, and his “on-and-off” lover Doreen, and finally, the just-completed Wall — the Vietnam War Memorial. Tom has finished his soul-work. He is done with grieving. He is Witness.
The spare November light begins to hit the stone and its beautiful, the dark glow.
The wall has got death right.
I walk awhile, stop now and then, but I don’t read. Maybe my motion is a form of praying. Or meditating. I did a little of that once. The sunlight is more pronounced.
Tom’s journey ends here; and it doesn’t. He makes it through the wall, to the other side of sorrow2 where something precious awaits him.
Tom o’ Vietnam is a book of wonder struck with awe:
A guerrilla peace manual overturning Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; a worthy foil for Nietzsche’s Zarathustra; a companion to St. John of the Cross during his Dark Night of the Soul; a lamentation for the New American Century; and contemporaneously and most poignantly, a kindred spirit of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier,”3 the anthem of the antiwar movement. (Sainte-Marie received many letters from soldiers as well as civilians saying her song had changed their lives.)
Wormser dedicates the book “for those who served and those who marched.” It’s a cautionary tale for all of us. It ought to be required reading in high schools and colleges. Every sentence, paragraph, fragment, poetic utterance is a meditation, a witness, an oracle: a novel flowering into a koan — a work of artistry beyond understanding that can only be received by standing-under, like a rare summer shower when it rains and shines at the same time. “There is a physics of rain, / like elegant grieving. // I am alive, and yet not. / No great wonder.”4 Says the mystic Sufi poet Hafiz. “I have full cause of weeping.” Says King Lear/Tom.
Wormser’s greatest achievement is his disappearing act — his self-erasure in the service of his art. What novel, book of poetry, play have I read that did not bear the stamp of its author? Wormser is the window we see through and forget about for the drama unfolding before us. He is the ghostwriter of Tom’s memoir.
This fall we witnessed the TV documentary The Vietnam War. Written by Geoffrey C. Ward, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novak, and narrated by Peter Coyote, the 10-part, 17-hour series with a cast of 79 took ten years to make and cost 30 million dollars.
Tom o’ Vietnam: 154 pages. The genius and stamina of one creative artist. A feather weighed in the balance with a bag of gold and the gold found, if not wanting, in my view the lesser achievement. With the Vietnam War we are still left wanting — wanting to know why, and why we are still here, now, in how many theaters of war?
Baron Wormser has, in the words of William Faulkner’s Nobel Lecture, “create[ed] out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” From the mask of tragedy he has fashioned a new one: the mask of redemption. Wormser deconstructs King Lear — not in the Derridan sense, but architecturally — and leaves for Tom the repurposing of the lines to create a new temple for his being, and to call back his familiar friend — his lost soul. Take this book into your heart. Walk and ride and abide with Tom. Live and breathe and be whole.
- Theater and Theatre are intentionally spelled throughout the review. The latter refers to a work of art, the former to the art of warfare as defined by the U.S. Department of Defense.
- For a full account of “Universal Soldier” and its afterlife, visit Buffy St. Marie’s website:
IN DEPTH: UNIVERSAL SOLDIER – Buffy Sainte-Marie – Official Site
- From the poem “The Cuillin” by Sorley MacLean. The Other Side of Sorrow: Poets Speak Out about Conflict, War, and Peace. Patricia Frisella, Ed. (Poetry Society of New Hampshire. Farmington, NH, 2006),188.
- From the poem, “Growing Tulips” by Hafiz. The Hand of Poetry: Five Mystic Poets of Persia. Lectures by Inayat Khan, Translations and Introductions by Coleman Barks. (Omega Publications. New Lebanon, NY. 1993),159.