Vietnam veteran Bodey’s first novel–the story of a young draftee’s year of combat in the Central Highlands in 1969–doesn’t rank with the most original or imaginative fiction to have come out of the war, but it is deeply felt, and authentic. When raw recruit Gabriel Sauers is helicoptered into the war zone for the first time, he realizes immediately that he has to shed his former self–back in Cincinnati, he was a house painter–like an old coat. He joins a squad of weary, crazy-looking veterans dug deep into the scarred hillside of LZ Niagara, men with nicknames like “Pops,” “Prophet,” “Chickenfeed,” and “Peacock.” To them, until he proves himself, he’s only an F.N.G., or “fucking new guy.”
What follows is the well-written, but fairly standard and predictable, story of Gabriel’s coming of age in Vietnam. He survives numbing boredom and terrifying firefights, sees his own lieutenant killed because of the incompetence of a high command concerned only with body counts, and gradually becomes a combat veteran himself, although never battle-hardened. By this time, two-thirds of a year has passed, and everyone in his old squad is gone, wounded or rotated out. Gabriel is now a squad leader with his own F.N.G. to look after, but the pressure of the war finally gets to him when his best friend is badly shop up: he turns his gun on his own men, has to be disarmed, and is sent back to a base mental hospital, full of shell-shocked men, to recover.
Bodey writes in an extremely realistic vein, never attempting to transcend his by-now familiar material, but the steady accretion of vivid detail–the feel and smell of the jungle, the sound of the helicopters, the bright red of the mailbags bringing news from the World–gives F.N.G. authenticity and strength. All in all, a moving book, both an exercise in memory, and a bittersweet exorcism.