By Scott Ely
Open Road Integrated Media
28 January 2014
Jackson, the protagonist in Starlight, has only 300 days left in Vietnam, and he wants to spend them safely behind a desk at a firebase on the Laos border. Unfortunately, the war isn’t going to let him off so easy, and a haunted rifleman who stays alive despite himself, Tom Light, is dropped off at the base one day demanding his R&R. Thing is, everyone who goes into the bush with Light gets killed, and he’s become bad luck to everyone around him. You get near Tom Light, you die; that’s the unspoken rule, and so the other soldiers keep their distance. Jackson, however, wants to learn Light’s secret to survival, and he sticks close by the sniper once Light promises him safety in exchange for writing his letters home, something that Jackson does multiple times over the course of the novel.
The Vietnamese believe that Light’s sniper scope has the power to raise the dead, and they literally bring out the rotting corpses of their kin when they discover that he’s in town. Jackson’s goal is to get out of Vietnam alive; nobody knows what Tom Light’s goal is. (He’d probably say something like, “Kill those fuckers.”)
If you’re looking for a happy ending or a fairytale, Starlight isn’t it. But maybe that’s the point; the Vietnam War itself had no happy ending, and it wasn’t exactly a romantic vision of war. Near the end of the book, Hale (the commanding officer at the firebase where Jackson is stationed) complains about conscripts: no “professional” soldier would ever lose a firefight against the enemy, especially not an inferior enemy. (I am not implying that Vietnamese people are inferior Americans or anyone else, but the war wasn’t politically correct, and this novel isn’t either.)
The novel feels unfinished. That is, there is no resolution or denouement, just like real life. The last couple of chapters bring the grim realities of war into stark focus, and neither Jackson nor Tom Light and his mystical starlight scope can save their fellow soldiers from the Viet Cong ambushing them from all sides. Starlight has a fuzzy quality to it, like looking through fogged glass and trying to see clearly. Reading the novel, I was unsure what was real and what was hallucinatory, and it’s obvious that the characters aren’t sure either.
Though it’s well written, I’m honestly not sure what to make of this novel by Scott Ely. Is it a treatise on the futility of war? How much of a lost cause the soldiers in the war felt they were? I don’t know. You should read it and decide for yourself.
DISCLAIMER: I received Starlight free from Open Road Integrated Media for this review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.