I’m taking a slightly different direction with today’s review of Sunshine Blues by Bob Calverley. He and I met virtually a few years ago when he reviewed my Vietnam-era novel, Wild Blue Yonder. We’ve kept in touch and over the intervening years, Bob has written three novels of his own. I thought his backstory might be interesting to you readers, so I asked him to respond to five questions in a virtual interview about himself and his novel. So here is that interview, followed by my review.
Tell Us Five Things About Sunshine Blues
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
Sunshine Blues is my third novel, and it’s a sequel to my first, Purple Sunshine: Sex & Drugs, Rock & Roll, War, Peace & Love. In between I wrote a murder mystery. When I finished the mystery, which was about three years ago, I realized that Jimmy, one of my two main characters in Purple Sunshine was only halfway through his tour in Vietnam and his girlfriend Gloria, the other main character, was six months pregnant. I couldn’t leave the story there. Aside from that, the underlying motivation for both books, and for the one I’m working on now, is my general dissatisfaction with the way the ‘60s are portrayed in books, movies and other art forms. It’s either grunts battling leeches and the VC in the jungle, or a big party with everyone dropping acid, hallucinating and screwing while listening to really cool music and moaning “far out, man.” The ‘60s was a tumultuous and complex decade. Take the summer of 1967, the “Summer of Love.” The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper at the end of May and a month later, laid down the vocals for All You Need Is Love, in the first worldwide live TV satellite broadcast. Then a few weeks later, 43 people died in a race riot in Detroit. The term, “race riot” comes from the Kerner Commission, which investigated the nation’s urban unrest and documented more than a hundred race riots in 1967. And that summer, more than 450 Americans a month died in Vietnam. Some summer of love.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
That the ‘60s are more relevant to today than I’d thought. I’m in my 70s so relating to today’s young people is a challenge. I’m so old that I’m writing historical fiction that I lived! I may not fully understand young people today, but I do know what it was like to be young in the ‘60s. While I was writing Sunshine Blues, systemic racism became an international issue and it seeped into the novel. In fact, it became a significant theme. I grew up in small towns in northern Ontario and northern Michigan. There were no Black people where I lived. None. Zero. So I was doing a lot of serious thinking about race while writing this story. One thing I did grasp was that in 400+ years of slavery in the Americas, there was a lot of mixing of the races. Gloria learns at the end of Purple Sunshine that her father was Black. So in Sunshine Blues she’s grappling with her identity. A formerly white sixteen-year-old girl who’s learned that she has a Black father? How is she supposed to feel about that? That wasn’t the only thing. Halfway through his tour in Vietnam, Jimmy has begun to understand the lies he’s been fed about the Vietnam War. He’s part of the big war machine and realizes he’s not necessarily one of the good guys. When I started writing the story, neither of those things was in my head. All I’ve ever set out to do is write pulp fiction that hopefully entertains readers. I’m not trying to impress anyone with big ideas. But I kept remembering the casual racism of the ‘60s that remains today and how angry I got when I read those history books on the war.
How is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
Actually, I didn’t have much of a plan when I started writing this story. I had some characters, and I had a vague idea that there’d be a murder mystery in the middle of the Vietnam War. And back in Detroit, Gloria would have more problems than being sixteen and pregnant. I wanted both parts of the story to be thrillers, but had no specific ideas on how to accomplish that. That was all I knew when I started. I write into the dark. I’m flying by the seat of my pants every day when I write. The characters tell me the story. About the time I was starting to write fiction, I heard Elmore Leonard at a book festival say that he had no idea what was going to happen when he began a story. He just started writing. That validated what I was already doing. Mostly, I think I’m trying to entertain myself. Every day when I write, it’s the most fun I have all day.
Which creative people have influenced you and your work?
Elmore Leonard for sure. I’m a big fan of Ken Follett, Diana Gabaldon, Michael Connelly, Stephen King, John Sandford and many other best-selling authors. I read a lot of thrillers, murder mysteries, historical fiction and some science fiction on my Kindle. I find cheap or free books through BookBub or Amazon’s list of top 100 free books. A lot of them are dreadful and I don’t read much before moving on to something else. But I find some real gems by authors I’ve never heard of before. I’ve probably read most of the big Vietnam War novels and seen most of the war movies. I liked Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato and I interviewed him and reviewed that book when I was a newspaper reporter. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn is my favorite Vietnam novel and I learned a lot from his What It Is Like to Go to War. Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers was an excellent piece of work that turned into a good movie, Full Metal Jacket. But as for sheer inspiration, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors and a host of other musical artists influenced my characters, and through them, me. There is a lot of music in the Sunshine books.
Persuade someone to read Sunshine Blues in 50 words or less.
1968. The peace & love are dying. Sunshine’s sixteen and pregnant. She needs to grow up. Fast. Boyfriend Jimmy’s flying on helicopter gunships. Good thing she doesn’t know what’s really happening to him. Or about the murderous Thai human trafficker lurking in the shadows who thinks he owns her.
I’ve read a lot of the novels written by troops who served in the Vietnam War, but can’t remember any I thought were as well written, as thoughtful, as interestingly diverse in themes and characters, as Bob Calverley’s Sunshine Blues.
Calverley’s novel is a Kindle book, and proof that the literary quality of the all-electronic book can be just as good as a book produced by the Big Five.
But most importantly, it’s a damned good read.
As Bob says in the interview above, it’s kind of strange to contemplate the Vietnam War era as old history. What’s even stranger to think about is the fact that our United States of America has been at war with somebody or other almost without cessation for the entire 20th century and shows no signs of changing that in the 21st. So war is hell, and we’ve lived in that particular version of hell pretty much all our lives. Where the contrast comes in is looking around ourselves today and seeing how life goes on as if there is no war in Afghanistan or wherever. That wasn’t the case in the Vietnam War, or World War I or II, either.
And that is precisely what makes Bob Calverley’s Sunshine Blues special, distinctive, and such a good read. Jimmy is off in Vietnam, fighting the war against the Vietcong as well as huge amounts of prejudice against Vietnamese citizens. His girlfriend Gloria, back home in Detroit, is worried and distraught about her Jimmy every day, while she’s fighting her own battles – some racial as well. And which are far from trivial. We aren’t subjected to endless slogs through the jungles. I would estimate at least half of the story takes place back in the States. Calverley wisely rocks us back and forth between the two young lovers, between the two warfronts, and shows us how life for each of them was an incessant struggle with social demons.
Again, as he points out in the interview, those times weren’t all peace and love and getting high. Admittedly, all three were crucially important to creating social change—the new kind of social change absolutely needed in those times, both socially and politically—social change which ought not to have been scorned, but was. Soldiers who should not have been spit on by men in gray flannel suits, but were. But that’s life, that’s change, that’s history waiting to rewrite itself.
Calverley’s novel touches on all of these issues in a very humanistic way. While one might read a novel where the narrator states issues of this sort in a matter-of-fact manner, Calverley introduces and explicates them through character development and dialogue. He doesn’t tell; he shows. His pacing and scene structures rise and fall with the people and the action. Sometimes it’s jarring to see the dirty depths of depravity in the military and, back “home,” civilians and criminals who have no regard for anyone or anything but their own wealth management.
I served in the military myself during this period in American foolhardiness, but was not sent to Vietnam. It was only a few years ago that I traveled there, with my wife, for the first time. Walking the crowded streets of Hanoi was an interesting cultural experience: lots of poor street people; gazillions of bikes and scooters; French architecture. The people weren’t unkind or resentful of us as Americans, but after all, the country has become yet another tourism destination. We spent a few days on a boat touring Halong Bay, which has been commercially, if informally, renamed “Kong: Skull Island,” after the movie. We often had the same waitress serve our meals and we became friendly with her. On our last day, she asked us—implored, actually—if there was any way we could help her emigrate to the US.
I feel it’s a bit of a shame I hadn’t read Calverley’s first novel, Purple Sunshine, first, the beginning of the story of Jimmy and Gloria which continues in this sequel. You probably should. I may yet, then it will be on to Hyperventilated Underwater Blues. How could you not want to read a novel with a title like that?