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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories Discusses

John Piper: Deserter or What?

with James Shaffer

Readers assume everything is normal unless they’re told otherwise. — proverbial editorial principle

The principle has a corollary. If readers are told something isn’t normal but not why, they’ll mentally make up scenarios to account for it. In particular, we have a passage in part 15 of “Back to the World” that raises some questions:

It was during my R&R in Hawaii, between my first twelve months in Vietnam and the start of my next six-month stint, when I decided to disappear. I made some enquiries and connections in Honolulu and had a new set of ID’s made. I mailed them home, hoping my daddy would save my post for me on the hall table. He had. I retrieved the package the day I’d arrived back in the world.

[Review Editor 1] The above seems to indicate Piper’s a deserter. He was on R&R in Hawaii, decides to “disappear” prior to returning to Viet Nam for the remaining six months of his tour of duty, and obtains fake ID, presumably to aid in his “disappearance.”

Mailing the fake ID’s home might indicate he intended to “disappear” after he finished his service in Viet Nam but, if that’s the case, I think this passage is confusing. Why did he want to assume another identity after he was discharged from the service? That makes no sense to me without some explanation. If the writer intended something other than desertion, he should make it clear.

[Review Editor 2] I don’t understand how the author can say John is not a deserter. It’s in the story.

[Don W.] The passage doesn’t say exactly what Piper means by “I decided to disappear,” but he obviously does not desert the Army while in Hawaii. He has already mailed his fake ID home, and we’re not told whether he’s kept a copy. Rather, he returns to Vietnam and completes a second tour of duty. Nor can he desert when he returns home to Texas, because he’s a veteran.

Even if Piper were still in the Army and deserted after he went home, why on earth would he remain in Texas, of all places, where he would surely be apprehended? In the 1970’s, he would go to Canada. In any case, Piper displays no anxiety about being caught by anyone other than Ed Will.

The “new set” of identification papers seems to anticipate other, unspecified plans, for unstated reasons. If Piper plans to “disappear” after completing his military service, why? And disappear from whom?

[James Shaffer] Regarding John Piper’s choice to disappear, he tells his father when he drops him off at the bus station in the “carpe diem” speech in part 13 that he has chosen to disappear. The new ID’s are the set-up for this scene.

John has signed his discharge papers. He’s home, out of the Army, and a veteran no longer in the military. With his induction, basic training and 18 months in-country, I would think he’s served his time. That’s my understanding, but perhaps it isn't clear.

There were many Viet Nam vets who, upon their return “to the world,” chose to live outside it, to escape, to live alone, to become anonymous for whatever reason. Why does Piper decide this? His war experience, his mother’s death, his father a drunk and gambler. John wants a change.

Since the world John once knew has changed, maybe he wants to change himself. Maybe it’s his way of controlling the world he’s come back to. Maybe it’s his way of making some sense of it or his way of making it liveable or bearable.

[Don W.] Thanks, James; that makes a lot of sense. I must admit that serialization works well with some stories, but I can see that it does “Back to the World” no favors. When reading in serial format, especially, readers may lose track of the context. Sorry about that; we’ll continue to proceed as rapidly as we can.

In particular, we might note that when John tells his father, Tom, that he, John, is going to “disappear,” he does so in part 13, in issue 631. The account of the fake ID papers sent from Hawaii occurs in part 15, in issue 632.

John has to prepare the fake ID papers somehow, and Hawaii is the only place where he has a reasonable amount of time in which to do it. Perhaps John could add an explanatory thought, to provide a least-effort backstop, something like: “I didn’t know yet how I’d use my new identity, but one thing was sure: the world was changing beyond recognition, and I wanted to steal a march on it.”

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