In 1987, army veteran Scott Ely published his debut, Starlight, a novel that amidst the traffic of fiction failed to break even the longest of top lists for the year. It is still not recognized by search engines in top novels on the Vietnam War, a sad fact that may be changed with its current re-release.
Starlight is not a first person fictionalized account of the Vietnam War. It is a fascinating story of a legendary sniper, Tom Light, and his rifle scope through which he can apparently predict the deaths of his fellow soldiers. Having survived ambush after ambush while all others have died, Light’s reputation spreads throughout the theater of war. He is feared by troops from both sides especially his own, who refuse him shelter in any camp. With the threat of mutiny, the army has no choice but to turn him loose in the jungle to live and kill the enemy on his own. Only one soldier, a frightened young man named Jackson through which the story is told, befriends Light. They strike a deal. Tom Light will protect Jackson from the enemy while in the bush as long as Jackson brings his mail and writes dictated letters back to his family. As the story progresses, orders put the soldiers in peril and decisions made effect the entire battalion ratcheting the suspense and fear of death afforded those in battle. On the edge of combat, Jackson must decide if his faith in Tom Light is well placed or if it should be abandoned. No one has seen or heard from him in days and Jackson cannot raise him on the two-way.
Ely doesn’t soften his prose. So much of war is the drudgery of downtime, the waiting and the fear that any moment could be your last. When fighting begins, it’s without notice, it’s abrupt and it’s violent. Ely’s descriptions are shocking in their immediacy and their brevity as is the case in true combat. He moves the story forward by allowing it to reveal itself in layers. Tragedy doesn’t always happen in large doses. Most times smaller tragedies build to the point where soldiers can predict heavy loses. The tragedy of character and humanity and reality unfolds seamlessly and though some action may come across as questionable from the reader’s standpoint, there is little doubt this fiction is rooted in the facts of a soldier witness to the Vietnam War. In a world where nothing makes sense, Ely relays that everything is possible. Even the most mystical of thoughts and premonition are taken as fact beneath the cloud of combat. Survival is based on luck and every soldier must find their own in order to increase their chance of survival. Hallucinatory images, whether from drugs or the emotional weight of war, cause these soldiers to become superstitious in ways that seem so out of touch with reality that when the hallucinations are destroyed by a real death, the reader feels the true sense of loss. Hallucinations are revealed as the only escape, the only happiness or insurance a soldier has against the conquering fear of death.
Nothing is stripped from Starlight which would tend to downplay the crippling dichotomy of fear and excitement in war. The novel is equal parts Catch-22 and The Things They Carried, combining absurdity with tragedy, bravery with cowardice and the reality of mortars throwing dirt and shrapnel past soldiers’ heads, bullets smacking trees and chipping shards of bark into their bodies with the superstition of luck and trinkets. The material is rendered in a way that at once has you laughing at its hysterically funny moments, at once drawing back with acute clarity of the dissolution and heartbreak of the Vietnam War. Characters are so vivid that while we may not agree with their actions or their attitudes, we are devastated and disturbed by their deaths and by the loss of the things they hold dear. We may not like them at points in the novel, but our hearts break when they die. Ely’s ability to bring his characters to life through sometimes the most ridiculous actions—Reynolds, a speed freak, only speaks in Jimi Hendrix lyrics, Leander always dons an enemy pith helmet, infuriating the commander—reveals more than just interesting character, it reveals the complexity of emotional instability and the need for soldiers to define their own reality within the undeniable and overly-complicated allure of war.
Scott Ely died on November 1, 2013. He had been fighting lymphoma and other cancers as a result of exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam. In late January of 2014, Open Road Media re-released Starlight.