The Prisoners of Quai Dong
The Taste of Power
Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage even though he had never panicked on a battlefield, and now Victor Kolpacoff has written The Prisoners of Quai Dong, a brilliant novel about the interrogation of a Viet Cong suspect, even though he has never set foot on Vietnamese soil. This fall hundreds of creative-writing teachers will be telling their students to write about “things you know from your own experience.”
Though not the masterpiece that Crane’s novel is, The Prisoners of Quai Dong satisfies the primary requirements of fiction, particularly those at which it has become fashionable to sneer. It is completely absorbing; it focuses on a subject of large contemporary interest; it is compactly formed; and it is written with a verbal discipline that, in this moment of cultural yawp, seems remarkable.
The novel falls within a sub-genre that American writers have traditionally handled well: the short fiction, dramatic and even violent, in which a few men are brought to a test of physical and/or moral strength and some intimation of significance is supposed to linger after the last bitter or ironic sentence. Such fiction has obvious similarities to the kind of movie Hollywood does best: the zeroing-in upon a conflict in which the causes, moral or otherwise, are swept aside by the sheer demands of survival. The value of such fiction—and films—lies in their strength of narrative, their leanness of form, and their tacit discounting of the resolution to which they seem to yield themselves. The weakness of such fiction—and films—lies in a readiness to minimize reflection, so that the consciousness of the characters remains undeveloped and the consciousness of the author unexpressed. Often the result is a work that resembles allegory, but without the moral clarity and assurance one expects from allegory.
The story is set in Quai Dong, an out-of-the-way spot without military significance but steadily harassed by guerrillas. Quai Dong also serves as a stockade for American military prisoners, one of those ghastly places in which the national talent for brutality comes to rich expression. Here, in the early pages, we encounter the central figure, Krueger, a former officer who has been busted for refusing to lead an advance. Shoveling sand from sun-up to sun-down and learning the great lesson of army life (“keep your head down”), Krueger is a man of intelligence but neither a rebel nor an intellectual—a fact that establishes both his value as the book’s eye and his limitations as its mind.
Krueger is suddenly called away. Because he knows a few words of Vietnamese, he is ordered to join the interrogation of a Vietnamese boy suspected of being a guerrilla courier. His task will be to check on Nguyen, the ARVN sergeant assigned to break the suspect, and then perhaps to take over the interrogation. For Krueger the assignment brings an immediate moral crisis: he is prepared to do his duty, he has no ideological objection to the war, he is tempted …
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An Exchange on the Left November 23, 1967