by Austin Bay
May 20, 2014
Early on, David Mamet established himself as a gifted playwright and screenwriter. Genuine artists are not herd animals, esthetically, intellectually or politically. For example, Mamet's screenplay for the 1997 film, "Wag The Dog," finessed -- by in large -- the politically correct cliches, which, since the Vietnam War, have turned Hollywood into an ideologically petrified forest of leftwing premise.
A war film of sorts, "Wag the Dog" satirically mocked lying leaders and sensationalist media. The plot featured a U.S. president mired in a sex scandal. To distract the public, the prez's Hollywood pals fake a war.
Aristophanes' "Lisistrata" satirized the Peloponnesian War. Greek women try to end it by withholding sex. Written in 411 BC, the play's wit still stings. But the Peloponnesian War, like D-Day and 9/11, was no laugher. Satire does not give human suffering and sacrifice just due. Tragic personal experience led Thucydides to write his "History of the Peloponnesian War" and contemplate the war's devastating legacy. After 24 centuries, this masterpiece of sober reflection continues to inform and disturb.
In late 2013, Argo Navis Author Services published Mamet's "Three War Stories." Memorial Day is an opportunity to review it.
The novellas explore warfare's sacrifice, physical destruction, spiritual damage and power to transform character. The first novella, "The Redwing," is the most unsatisfying. Bits of British Empire exotica litter the long confession of a 19th-century British naval officer turned Secret Service agent, so much so that at times the story reads like a deranged Robert Louis Stevenson novel. In fact, the secret agent's tale distinctly echoes Stevenson's "The Ebb Tide." The agent admits he writes fiction based on his career. He also wrote a best-selling, but carefully falsified, memoir. He says he is of two minds. Truth? Crafty lies? Fiction and memory mesh. Narrative vacillation may reflect moral vacillation. However, "Redwing" overplays this literary game.
The second novella, "Notes on Plains Warfare," is a sober memoir crafted by brooding, intellectual U.S. Army officer -- an American Thucydides.
The Civil War was his career's big conflict. However, little wars burden his conscience, minor campaigns in the ethnic and cultural war waged on Plains Indians during the 1870s and 1880s. The officer, with unflinching courage, essays the destruction of people he respected, admired and ultimately loved. Indigenous religions intrigue him; their spiritual depths speak to his own Christian faith. He revisits poignant conversations. He recalls garrison duty and desperate battles, to include a fanatical stand against a tribal war party. He describes combat with the spare, authentic language of a soldier who suffered yet survived.
I have read several Plains campaign memoirs. Mamet's psychological intensity and literary skill add an enriching, emotional depth these historical sources lack -- which is the gift of good fiction.
Novella three, "The Handle and the Hold," is really a film noir screenplay as short prose. It's 1947. Peace? Not for Nick, a former 101st Airborne paratrooper. A Nazi sub sunk the ship carrying the wounded Nick back to the States. He survived, physically. Now he's working as hired muscle in a Vegas casino. Casinos frown upon gamblers who welsh on bets. When police discover a dead gambler in the Nevada desert, the chief detective, Sam, summons Nick. During the war, Sam flew a B-25. He also married an English girl -- a Jewish English girl. Nick and Sam are both Jewish. Sam's beloved wife, her parents and their friends in LA are active Zionists.
Prison doesn't faze Nick. It's just another place to mark time. But risking his life to serve a just cause? A dark proposition for sheep and perpetual civilians -- but it resurrects and recruits a soldier. Sam enlists Nick in a complex gun running caper. They'll steal an extended range B-17 and fly it to Florida where co-conspirators will load it with weapons for Israeli fighters. To reach Palestine, Nick and Sam must refuel in the Azores. Mamet is a master of dialog. The World War 2 vets' verbal exchanges are electric, crackling with authentic slang, insistently foreshadowing violence. I won't spoil the denouement.