The Imaginary Girlfriend: Kidder Resurrects War and Failed Novel


Tweaking multiple genres, Tracy Kidder has written a war story without violence and—almost as unconventionally—a memoir free of self-aggrandizement and whining. The plotline smells like coming-of-age: Kidder, as a Harvard undergrad and aspiring writer, enlists in ROTC, promptly regrets it, then goes to Vietnam to serve in a war he’d rather be protesting. But although the young lieutenant gleans some knowledge and experience from his noncombatant service, he remains in essence the same decent albeit self-mythologizing kid. Pre-‘Nam, writing fiction for a college class, Kidder painstakingly jots marginalia, “imagining my biographer’s delight” in stumbling on it. Upon his return stateside, he authors a bloody war novel, Ivory Fields, which introduces itself as “the saddest story you ever hope to hear” and is meant to be read as semi-autobiographical.

In Vietnam, Kidder commanded (“in a manner of speaking”) eight men in an isolated compound, where their exposure to battle was confined to nightly viewings of the World War II TV series Combat! Between the brilliant dawns and beer-sodden nights, Kidder briefed colonels, coaxed his men into doing chores, and wrote letters home describing an imaginary Vietnamese girlfriend and fabricated heroics. My Detachment traces his jagged learning curve as he acquires the subtle skills of commanding and being commanded. Looking back, the Pulitzer Prize winner spares his younger incarnation no censure or embarrassment. He quotes his pretentious letters and re-creates some classic humiliating moments (“It shakes one’s confidence to be rejected by a prostitute”). And he resurrects Ivory Fields, his unpublished novel. Marked by dishonest insinuations, cheesy melodrama, and tortured prose, that youthful work is something of a foil for the memoir in which it’s repeatedly excerpted. In My Detachment, with its candor and humor, Kidder not only pokes fun at his failed Vietnam book; he redeems it.

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