Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saturday's Best Book Diary: Sam Toperoff's PORCUPINE MAN and Ha Jin's WAR TRASH

"The allies had won the war.  The survivors wanted the peace they thought they deserved.  There existed, unfortunately, the extremely unpleasant ask of telling them that the Allies weren't really allies and that peace would not be quite the Peace for which most of those supreme sacrifices had been made.'

"Blame had to be assessed for the new hostilities; a new terminology was required to simplify and to make a rotten situation that had been denied for years crystal clear.  Red had to be painted Black, convincingly.  A marriage of convenience had to be publicly annulled without a scandal.  Distinctions that didn't even exist a few years earlier had to be made into irresolvable antagonisms of the deepest sort.  A new war that wasn't actually a war had to be announced to people sick and tired of the old one.  Survival was again at stake so soon after survival had been won.'

"The future of Freedom as we have known it since Greece; nothing less was at stake."

Those are the ironic opening lines about the iron curtain in Porcupine-Man by Sam Toperoff.  My copy of the first edition hardcover is scanned above, published by Saturday Review Press/E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1973.  The dustjacket design is credited to Sam Salant.

The list price on the dustjacket flap is $7.95 of not-yet-inflated 1973 dollars.  I paid less than that for a fine/fine first edition copy within the last decade.  Terrific writer that he is, blessed with a gift for humorous irony and the author of a variety of sharply written memoirs, biographies, sports and travel yarns, today he is virtually forgotten.  He doesn't even have his own wikipedia page.

Toperoff comes from the Nelson Algren school of writing--always taking up for the blue-collar underdog, giving voice to those without a voice of their own.  Porcupine-Man was his masterpiece, a novel of the Korean War showing how the powerless are pushed around by the fear-mongering powerful, how propaganda brainwashes the innocent.

The tandem read of choice should be Ha Jin's equally great novel, War Trash.  Whereas Porcupine-Man shows the American G.I. going through the military brainwashing and then into the Chinese prison-camp, War Trash shows the opposing Chinese military draftee later going into the American prison camp.  The novels are great companion volumes, equal in theme and depth.

War Trash was published by Panthenon Books, New York, 2006, after Ha Jin had already won the Pen/Faulkner and the National Book Award and was then a professor of English at Boston University.  Brian Barth is credited with the book design.

The first edition hardcover is a turtleback featuring the photo of long lines Chinese troops crossing the Yalu River.  Nondescript conscripted soldiers trudging along in a double file.  The thin paper dustjacket has a black bindfold in the center, but the dustjacket itself is cut too short and will not fit properly.  Designed that way, it seems.  It reminds me of the pants I was issued in bootcamp.

This is an otherwise romantic time.  I didn't plan to revisit any political or war propaganda books this month.  A Brother's Blood, Porcupine-Man, then War Trash.  Sometimes it is as if certain books on my shelves seek me out.

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