Nelson, Charles. “The Boy Who Picked the Bullets Up”, Lyle Stuart, 1988.
Racism, Homosexuality, Inhumanity and War
“The Boy Who Picked the Bullets Up” is one of those little books that usually go unnoticed. I have no idea why that is but I do want to make sure that I noticed it and had quite an enjoyable read. It is quite a serious look at racism among the troops in the Vietnam War and it shows how some American gay men lived their lives during wartime. Kurt Strom, the hero, has come out to his gay friend, Paul who is the only person he can write to about who he is and the sexual situations he finds himself in. To the others that he writes—his family and a straight friend, he writes from the perspective of a straight man. His letters are filled with what it means to be a medic during the war and he shows the devastation that comes when someone is forced into being what he is not. Looking at his story today, we would say that he lives in the closet but that is because society has forced him to be so. He can have sex with men but he cannot say that he is a gay man and a relationship is totally out of the question. We feel his anger and it colors his racism.
The novel is written in letters and it is powerful as well as quite erotic. Before he entered the service, Kurt was a professional baseball player but with the war, he joined the Marines and is stationed at a Navy hospital at Camp Lejeune in the war zone of Vietnam. His time is split between the hospital and with his unit and working with local Vietnamese militia and with citizens and we get an insightful look at the military presence in Vietnam. Sex and violence come together in the novel. Kurt is filled with lust and acts aggressively. He is racist and he does not hide that despite the fact that he hides his sexuality.
Charles Nelson, the author, looks at the psychology of military homophobia and homoeroticism and there is a lot of graphic sex which often is abusive and dishonest. War is also presented graphically and death and injury play a huge part in the narrative as do medical details. However, the real focus here is on the human.
It all starts out mildly but picks up to the point where the narrator’s experiences in Vietnam are seen in a poignant and humanitarian light. Then, the overload occurs and the horrors of war take their toll. This is accomplished so deftly that you don’t realize the path the novel takes until it is over. I do not know if the author served in Vietnam but he surely knows what went on there and does not excellent job of relating it.
The book is now out of print but if you are lucky enough to find a copy, grab it.