Anne Harding Woodworth on Baron Wormser

Tom O’Vietnam by Baron Wormser. New Rivers Press, 2017.

On the Road Again

The character in Tom O’Vietnam absorbs you. Read his first-person account and you’ll know why. He’s suffering from PTSD, or at least you figure that’s why he’s wandering in search of answers. He travels around the country by bus, wearing a decorated cotton jacket, on which is lettered by hand “Freedom is Hell.”

In this beautifully written novel, author and poet Baron Wormser is part-Vonnegut, part-Rilke, and part-Sandburg. And yet he is all Wormser, with a humorous sparkle in the eye, a sadness in the heart, and poetry in the voice.

Tom’s odyssey is an escape, or perhaps a reprieve, from the frightening memory of a naked girl running toward him, of fire, of gunshot, killing, war, and dead villagers. Pictures of the disastrous Vietnam War are conjured in this riveting story of a man who lives with King Lear constantly in mind. Obsessed he may be, but the way he brings the lines of that play into his own thoughts, the way he contemplates Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s intentions, makes his obsession real and lovely.

This is not just another novel about Vietnam. Yes, it’s the story of a generation, a traditional yet irreverent generation that went through a horrendous experience with a war that never should have been. But it is soon very clear that Tom’s service in the Vietnam War has rendered him a man with questions. He identifies with Edgar, the legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear. He calls Edgar “the origin of the Abominable Tom” because Edgar—and this is not lost on the reader—becomes a crazed Tom O’Bedlam in King Lear. Yes, it’s a disguise for Edgar, but nonetheless an alter-ego. Wormser’s Tom asks, “Was Tom always there inside of Edgar waiting to come out? Does everyone have a Tom inside himself or herself?”

Tom O’Vietnam is a first-person narrative, but it is drama-like in that it uses copious dialog, as Tom goes around the country visiting each of his sisters and meeting fellow-travelers on the road. Gwendolyn is one such seat mate, an actress of sorts. Tom hooks up with her later. She asks him if what is written on his jacket is from Shakespeare. “No, [Shakespeare] wouldn’t say something like that. . . . Because he never went to some place that made no sense to him and watched even less sense occur.”

Although it becomes clear that it was King Lear that got Tom through his stint in Vietnam, his friendship with his lieutenant, a guy called Knightly, is a recurring focus of Tom’s thoughts. Knightly, who is seen only in Tom’s memory, becomes very real. So too his relationship with a professor in Chicago, Mike, who “looks as though he’s been cogitating forever.” Tom visits the professor in a university office and is several times on the phone with him. Tom’s big question is: “Why does Cordelia have to die?”

Whether this question is ever answered only the reader can decide.

Tom O’Vietnam portrays one veteran’s post-war journey. This penetrating novel encompasses a cast of characters, real and on stage, at war and at peace. Those who cherish King Lear, those who lived through the Vietnam War years, those who now read reports of war in many parts of the world will immerse themselves in Wormser’s captivating story and come out of it with a determination that war should be avoided at all cost.

Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of six books of poetry, most recently, The Eyes Have It (Turning Point Books, 2018).



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