There is a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon, and some nights, coming back late to the city, I'll lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. The map is a marvel, especially absorbing because it is not real. For one thing, it is very old. It was left here years ago by a previous tenant, probably a Frenchman since the map was made in Paris. The paper has buckled, and much of the color has gone out of it, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicts. Vietnam is divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, and to the west, past Laos and Cambodge, sits Siam, a kingdom. That's old, I told the General. That's a really old map.
The General is drawn to it too, and whenever he stops by for a drink he'll regard it silently, undoubtedly noting inaccuracies which the maps available to him have corrected. The waters that wash around my Indochine are a placid, Disney blue, unlike the intense, metallic blues of the General's maps. But all of that aside, we both agree to the obsolescence of my map, to the final unreality of it. We know that for years now, there has been no country here but the war. The landscape has been converted to terrain, the geography broken down into its more useful components; corps and zones, tactical areas of responsibility, vicinities of operation, outposts, positions, objectives, fields of fire. The weather of Vietnam has been translated into conditions, and it's gone very much the same way with the people, the population, many of whom can't realize that there is an alternative to war because war is all they have ever known. Bad luck for them, the General says. As well as he knows them (and he knows them well), he seldom talks about them except to praise "their complexity, their sophistication, their survivability." Endearing traits.
Trillin, the author of 29 other books, is known for his humor writing and satire, but aside from a few passages in a reported essay on Mardi Gras, he steps away from humor in order to cover the serious matters at hand. This book reveals how his early days as a journalist in the South kindled his interest in race, propelling him across America to report on race relations in the decades that followed. (Earlier this year, Trillin came under fire for a satirical poem, published in The New Yorker, written in the voice of a foodie obsessed with Chinese cuisine; those who were quick to assail him might want to read this book.)
President John F. Kennedy acknowledged that he stood in the glamour-shadow of his wife when he famously remarked that he was “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” But it was JFK rather than Jackie who gave the White House its most elegant landscape feature.