So, North Beach legend and ubiquitous San Francisco bar tender and raconteur, Jack “The Hat” Yaghubian went to Viet Nam in 1969. If you read his book Grunt’s Minutia you will know everything you will ever need to about how lucky you are that you did not have to.
Grunt’s Minutia details in crushing, hypnotic detail the day-to-day activities, encounters and observations of one insightful and good humored (considering the hell of dullness he occupies) “dogface” draftee.
Jack’s alter-ego “Ruben Dann” floats from one trenchant observation to the next from the life of a infantry man/draftee over the coarse of “sixteen days in the fall of 1969″. His descriptions of his fellow unfortunate draftee/grunts and their scorned counterparts – gung-ho army “lifers”, painfully mundane daily tasks, and the deadening daily minutia of an E-3 draftee, are drawn in such microscopic detail and so matter of fact-ly, that there can be no doubt all these terrible things actually happened to our hero.
I picked the book up a several times after buying one from Jack at the book premier in Tosca a year ago. I could never get more than 30 pages into it. Then finally, I got it. Jack doesn’t want to TELL us about his Viet Nam experiences, he wants us to actually FEEL what the daily grind was like. Once I got into the prose and the world created, it was like hearing a song or a piece of music that you simply cannot get out of your head. The book has a lot in common with CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce - the descriptions of the damned in Lewis’ great allegory are hellish indeed. Instead of being boiled in oil or squewered by demons, Lewis’ unfortunates stand alone in interminable lines in a grey drizzle; they occupy cities much as they did while alive, and they live in homes commensurate with their status in their earthly incarnations. Napoleon and Bismarck reside in gray palaces, while more mundane malefactors lurk about in suitably modest bungalows. The common denominator is the incessant dull rain that cuts right through the roofs of their homes, their hats and their clothes. They are eternally uncomfortable, on edge and never able to accomplish the simplest of tasks.
The young soldiers that pass through Jacks hypnotic scenarios are in a similar hell of uncertainty and discomfort. Once I settled into the language and the obsessively detailed and repetative descriptions of his characters day-to-day existence I couldn’t put the book down. My horror and fascination only deepened chapter by chapter. The high point of the book was when protagonist Ruben Dann realizes the task of burning the huge piles of soldier shit left in the latrines is such an easy job compared to most of the other details the pfc’s are expected to do, that he becomes excited and starts conniving to somehow land this “gravy” assignment. For the reader it’s a blow-the-soda-out-your-nostrils revelation and a defining detail about the absurdity and torment these poor grunts live each day in the bush.
There are no heroics, no Apocalypse Now or The Green Berets moments in Grunts Minutia. The violence is short lived, brutal, confusing and infrequent. The violence that stays with the reader is the spirit crushing boredom and kafkaesque daily exercises that these painfully young soldiers experience at a time in their lives when they should be making out with other teenagers, studying music, history, auto repair….doing anything but what they are forced to do by an intrinsically unfair universe.