three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
By: 
Tracy Kidder
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir

A-MyDetachmentKidder, author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Soul of the New Machine, recounts his tour of duty as a naïve, Harvard-educated Army lieutenant with a communications detachment in Vietnam. The young Kidder aspires to be Fitzgerald or Hemingway, and it is this misplaced sense of romanticism that leads him to serve in Vietnam while many of his fellow Ivy Leaguers were finding obliging doctors to cook up medical deferments. Kidder is in charge of an eight-man unit, but the blue-blood officer finds himself ill-prepared to lead his streetwise subordinates. One of his most colorful charges, Pancho, reminds him early on that he could kill Kidder anytime he wants. It’s as close to combat as Kidder would get, except for the outrageous tales he invented in his letters home.
Random House. 208 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0375506152

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Reading the first two chapters of My Detachment, which recount Kidder’s boyhood in Oyster Bay, Long Island, his years in prep school and at Harvard, and his painful love affair with a shallow coquette named Mary Anne, I heard faint reverberations from The Great Gatsby. . . . [T]he Jazz Age overtones of those early chapters, alternately sweet, sad, and comic, are maintained as Lieutenant Kidder tries to cope with military life while pining for his Daisy Buchanan." Philip Caputo

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Kidder’s great talent ever since his Pulitzer-winning The Soul of a New Machine has been his ability to take ordinary details and give them the shape, metaphors, and rhythms of a novel. . . . [T]he book works because he’s so candid about his insecurities, and how they played into his need to deceive others (and himself) about his role in Vietnam." Mark Athitakis

Hartford Courant 3 of 5 Stars
"My Detachment is an entirely different kind of Vietnam story. In its report from the edge of things, it may be closer to the experience of the vast majority of soldiers who were there than memoirs of gruesome combat and life-changing crisis." Steve Courtney

San Jose Mercury News 3 of 5 Stars
"The lack of life-or-death tension sometimes makes for a book that many readers will find uninvolving. But it may be significant that this memoir appears in the midst of another war that we can’t help seeing through the lens of Vietnam. Muted, ironic, thoughtful, My Detachment is a meditation in a time of war—and a candid depiction of how the misdirections of youth can shape and haunt a life." Charles Matthews

Baltimore Sun 2 of 5 Stars
"Sadly, this book does not measure up to Kidder’s best work. It is hard to feel much sympathy for a lieutenant whose eight-man detachment runs all over him when hundreds of his peers were leading rifle platoons in almost daily combat." Robert Timberg

Rocky Mountain News 1.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]his is a somewhat ambivalent book: hilarious in some details of his backwater assignment, unsparing in his assessment of his F. Scott Fitzgerald-inspired Gatsby-like self-image, but, in the end, rather meaningless." John C. Ensslin

Critical Summary

At its best, My Detachment resembles classic wartime satires like Catch-22 and M*A*S*H in its demonstration that the worst battles many soldiers face are against boredom and mindless military bureaucracy. Critics appreciated Kidder’s eagerness to probe his lack of valor and his candor in disclosing his habit of inventing combat experiences to compensate for his unglamorous army career. It’s an honest account of his military life. Yet it’s also one that some critics considered pointless, as though time had failed to give Kidder the perspective to appreciate his sacrifice in fighting a war he could easily have avoided, as well as his good fortune in avoiding the combat that cost 58,000 American lives.

Also by the Author

Mountains Beyond Mountains The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (2003): 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2003. Kidder looks at the life of Paul Farmer, whose Partners in Health organization has saved countless people.

House (1985): How many people do you know who have built a house and then swear they will never do it again? Kidder reveals why in this meticulous chronicle of one couple’s efforts to work with an architect, contractors, and each other to create a new home.