Fatal Light by Richard Currey

Richard Currey‘s Fatal Light is an unusual novel in which an unnamed narrator provides readers with an inside view of what it is like to be a draftee before, during, and after the war.  Beyond the bullets, the Viet Cong, the mines, and the brutality of war, soldiers had to navigate a culture they didn’t understand, malaria, injury, and unexpected relationships.  The prose is sparse and the chapters are small, but each line, each chapter can knock readers over or back into their seats after putting them on the edge.

The unnamed narrator’s family is dispersed between West Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio, and the tranquility of the Ohio River and its surrounding landscape acts as the backdrop for the later contrasts of Vietnam’s jungles and the war.

“The festival queen and her court rode into view on a float garlanded with tissue flowers, gliding across the horizon of Main Street like a mirage, small-town madonnas sliding past waving their downy arms dreamily, their eyes the eyes of soft animals turned heavenward from thrones of blossoms and crepe, their faces all a magnificent promise, the romance at the end of the world passing so slowly in those long moments of perfect quiet, like the air over the river, the light and stillness inside the world at daybreak, like a held breath.”  (page 12)

There is a deep sadness in Currey’s prose as the narrator spirals further into the darkness of the jungle and of his memories as he recovers from injury and malaria.  But beyond the sadness and memory, the soldier lives on in grief, denial, and anger.  His anger rises at the military establishment, but his connection to his grandfather and those war stories still grounds him in reality.

“Mist filtered, smoke and constant drip. In the distance, the hoarse choke of approaching helicopters.

‘Choppers coming,’ I said. ‘We’re on the way.’

‘Gonna bleed the rest of my life,’ he hissed. ‘Gonna be coming right out of my bones all the rest of my life. You hear what I’m saying?’

I looked at him and the sound of the helicopters grew closer. ‘I hear what you’re saying,’ I whispered.” (page 80)

Unlike other war novels, Fatal Light is less graphic in describing wounds, battle, and recovery but the emotional connection between the narrator’s feelings and the readers are intertwined as they are drawn into each immediate, vivid observation.  While the observations are descriptive, they are not journalistic or clinical.  Currey’s prose is captivating, but realistic and gritty.  Overall, Currey’s slim novel is a memorable, twisted tale of a Vietnam soldier.

***If you missed my earlier recap of Currey’s reading in Bethesda, Md., check it out.  I purchased my copy of the book at the reading.***

Photo by Vivian Ronay

About the Author:

Richard Currey was born in West Virginia in 1949, was raised there and in Ohio, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Canada. Drafted in 1968, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was detached to the Marine Corps, trained as a combat medic, and assigned to various infantry and reconnaissance units. He began publishing poetry after his discharge in 1972, and he drew upon his military experiences in Crossing Over: The Vietnam Stories. His first novel, Fatal Light, became an international bestseller published in 11 languages. Fatal Light received the Special Citation of the Hemingway Foundation as well as the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Excellence in the Arts Award. Currey’s second novel, Lost Highway, looks at the impact of the Vietnam War on an American family and was called “a rich, incisive American fable” by the Boston Globe. Currey’s short stories have received O. Henry and Pushcart Prizes and have been widely anthologized. A former military book reviewer for Newsday, he is now a contributing editor for The Veteran. A recipient of National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in both poetry and fiction, Currey has also received the D. H. Lawrence Fellowship in Literature and the State of West Virginia’s Daugherty Award in the Humanities.

This is my 11th book for the 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge.

This is my 56th book for the 2010 New Authors Reading Challenge.

I hope you enjoyed this latest Literary Road Trip with Washington, D.C., author Richard Currey.


  1. This one sounds well worth the read, thanks for the review.

  2. I like that this one is more emotional than graphic in nature. I have yet to read a book about Vietnam.

  3. Sounds a tough book to travel through.

  4. Beth Hoffman says

    A dear friend collects books on the wars of the world, and after reading your terrific review, I will buy him this for a Christmas gift! He loves sparse prose.

    • I’m glad that this will be on your Christmas list. This was a great look at Vietnam War soldiers before, during, and after the war. I hope your colleague enjoys it.

  5. This sounds heartbreaking. Great review, as always!

  6. Thanks for letting me borrow your copy! Sounds like a good one for the Vietnam War Challenge, though usually it drives me nuts when the narrator has no name. I’ll get over it, I’m sure. 😉