Author Donald E. Zlotnik (born 1941) published over 300 weekly newspaper columns for two metro-Detroit newspapers. Most of Zlotnik's paperback novels are based on his harrowing, and highly respected career in the United States Army Special Forces. Zlotnik's 31 months in combat during the Vietnam War was commemorated by the awarding of three Bronze Stars, The Soldier's Medal and The Purple Heart. Beginning in 1986, Zlotnik began authoring military “fiction” novels based on his own experiences in Southeast Asia. The first was a stand-alone novel, Eagles Cry Blood (1986), followed by a four-book series titled Survivor of Nam (1988). Zlotnik followed with another run of combat-related novels, the five-book Fields of Honor (1990-1992) series. My first experience with the author is the debut novel of the Survivor of Nam series, Baptism, published by Popular Library.
Baptism introduces a handful of characters that will play dominant roles throughout the Survivor of Nam series. The chief protagonist is Private First Class Woods, a wet-behind-the-ears grunt who's introduced on the first page when he arrives at a U.S. Army airfield in Saigon. Zlotnik's sense of realism is reflected in the smallest of details, like the rubber around a transport vehicle's windows with a crisscross of tape to avoid glass shards in the event of an attack. You can immediately sense the horror, fear and remembrance in the author's writing style. After Woods partners with PFC Barnett, the two become close friends as they brave the first days in Vietnam. After being ordered to the 1st Cavalry Division in deadly Qui Nhon, the two soldiers are asked if they want to volunteer for MACV Recondo School. They jump at the chance and the book's opening chapters details the duo's training in small, heavily-armed long range reconnaissance patrols into enemy territory.
Upon graduation, the two soldiers, along with a handful of consistent characters, immediately experience their first battles. Victorious, Woods/Barnett's recon force is dropped along the borders of Laos and Cambodia, where the South Vietnam border touched Laos and North Vietnam. The mission is border surveillance, but U.S. Intelligence instructs the team to drop innovative, unique listening devices along the routes spreading from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It's here where the bulk of the action lies, eventually separating Woods while readers learn that Barnett has been captured. At 185-pages, the book ends with a cliff-hanger that provoked me to research the second book in the series. Sure enough, it picks right up with Barnett's experience as a prisoner-of-war in the aptly titled installment P.O.W.
First and foremost, this is a work of fiction. Many readers, like myself, will ponder the decision to read Vietnam War fiction when so much non-fiction exists. There's a vast abundance of grunts, snipers, tunnel rats, pilots and tank commanders that have recounted their battle experience in explicit, detailed (often with photos) autobiographies. I think the fictionalization of true stories helps to separate the horror from reality and makes for a more enjoyable read. Your mileage may vary.
Baptism focuses on Woods (18) and Barnett's (17) coming of age experiences in the volatile jungles of Vietnam and is worth the sticker price. But, the author creates a number of engaging, side stories that further enhance the reading experience. There's a Black Panther member in the patrol unit that may be killing off white soldiers. There's a black market story-line involving guns, drugs and money with the supply detail with ranking members in the recon force caught in the crossfire. Zlotnik gives readers plenty to absorb and enjoy, and the book reminded me of a good young adult novel - albeit with added graphic sex, violence and profanity.
Overall, Baptism was an effective, but admittedly disturbing, first installment. The characters were compelling, the action propulsive and the author's combat experiences were conveyed to readers through the characters and story. I've already purchased the second installment and have the remaining two in my shopping cart. I absolutely loved this book, and I think you will too.
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