John H. Brown is a familiar figure to many West Virginians. He’s the founder of Brown Communications, a public relations firm now headed by his son, Bryan. He’s been a wine and food columnist for more than 30 years. From time to time, he’s written for the Gazette-Mail and the State Journal.
Now, Brown has embarked on a different kind of writing — he’s published a novel, “Augie’s War,” inspired by his war-time experiences in Vietnam.
Like Joseph Heller in “Catch 22,” the classic novel about the deadly World War 11 air war, Brown has given readers a novel that makes clear the insanity of war in all its grim and gritty horror. The casualty count in “Augie’s War” is high. Yet, at the same time, Brown’s novel, like Heller’s, includes a lineup of zany characters and a sequence of outlandish happenings sure to have readers chuckling, if not laughing out loud.
“Fifty years ago,” Brown says, “I was drafted into the U.S. Army and a few months later, I was provided an all-expense paid tour of Vietnam (1969-70). When I returned home, I decided that I would write about my experiences. But a family and career took precedence, and I put the idea on the back burner.”
A couple of years back, when Brown decided to retire from his public relations business, his wife and a few friends encouraged him to pen the story he long had dreamed of writing.
Brown says he never harbored any illusions that his novel would be commercially published. “But I knew that finishing the project would be personally rewarding. After all, it was number one on my bucket list of things to do.”
Ultimately, a small independent publishing house, Black Rose Writing, in Castroville, Texas, decided to take a chance on the book and published it in a slim paperback volume.
Yes, Brown’s novel is a war story. But it’s much more than that. It’s also about family and coming of age. The novel’s young draftee protagonist — Augustino Lee Cumpton, known as “Augie” — frequently summons up memories of his Italian-American family back home in West Virginia.
Augie’s grandfather, Salvatore Emilio Costanza, worked hard in the coal mines, saved every penny he could and used that savings to open a little business, the Chestnut Baking Co. Everyone in the family, including young Augie, worked at the bakery. Memories of the bakery and its daily parade of colorful customers provide Augie with memories he can retreat into as a way of hanging on to his sanity while he’s trapped in war-torn Vietnam.
For Augie and his battlefield buddies, the awful realities of war are compounded by the incompetent, irrational and sometimes downright criminal behavior of his unit’s superior officers.
Brown excels at painting word portraits of the men who serve alongside Augie. There is “Rooster” Washington, a huge black infantryman from the inner city who has seen it all. He and Augie seemingly get off on the wrong foot but, over time, he shows the young West Virginian ways of surviving the war and the ignorance of the base’s military commanders.
There’s Staff Sgt. Roy Shaver, who runs the off-duty NCO Club. Shaver cheats the men by short-pouring their drinks, rigging the slot machines and overcharging for the skinny Vietnamese whores he pimps.
And then there’s “Roter” Charlie, a north-Georgia helicopter pilot who swears he spotted a pink armored personnel carrier in the middle of a battlefield. Turns out Charlie was right, the vehicle was given a coat of pink paint after being pressed into service as a mobile bordello.
“Augie’s War” is a deadly serious but outrageously funny novel that deserves to find the widest reading audience possible.