Writing Is Hell | Our Town | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Our Town

Writing Is Hell

Gerald Nicosia fought his own war with the publishing world to bring the experiences of Vietnam vets into print.

by

comment

In 1973 Gerald Nicosia was a 23-year-old graduate student teaching a rhetoric class to freshman composition students at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He asked them to write about an experience from their past and was knocked out by the essay turned in by Al Nellums, a black student who was about Nicosia's age. "He wrote about the first man he killed in Vietnam," Nicosia says. "He was evidently in a near hand-to-hand combat, and he took out his sidearm and shot this guy at point-blank range. He said he kept seeing the face of the man he killed."

After that Nellums and Nicosia often got into long conversations in Nicosia's office. "He poured out his soul to me," Nicosia says. Nellums told him he was the first person he'd met who was interested in what he'd gone through during the war.

Two years earlier Nicosia had drawn a low draft-lottery number. He thought he would lose his college deferment and be drafted, so he debated fleeing to Canada as his best friend had. "I thought that was going to be my fate," he says, but the idea gave him nightmares. "It was a trauma of its own order, thinking I had to leave my family and friends."

Shortly after he was summoned for a physical, two antiwar Democratic senators--Mike Gravel of Alaska and Frank Church of Idaho--staged a filibuster to prevent the renewal of the Selective Service Act, and the draft law was suspended. By the end of that year Nicosia's draft eligibility had expired. "I was able to go to graduate school and get on with the rest of my life," he says.

Yet Vietnam continued to dominate Nicosia's consciousness, and this year he published Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement, a 700-page story of the protest movements orchestrated by the men who fought in Vietnam and returned home bruised or broken. Nicosia recounts how members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War conducted fake war exercises and mock invasions in New Jersey in 1970 and threw their service medals onto the steps of the Capitol in 1971. He profiles the contentious personalities of the movement: VVAW founder Jan Barry, black activist Al Hubbard, tortured paraplegic Ron Kovic, and the politically adroit John Kerry. Home to War also critiques the Veterans Administration's refusal to acknowledge the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and Agent Orange. With the end of the war, Nicosia's narrative shifts to the emotional realm of healing and reconciliation, as his subjects talk about their solidarity with gulf war veterans and their parallel physical and emotional debilitation.

This is Nicosia's first nonfiction book since Memory Babe, his critical biography of Jack Kerouac, which reached shelves in 1983 after six years of work and three different publishing contracts. That experience was good practice for Home to War, which Nicosia began working on in 1988. Over the next 13 years he faced the vicissitudes of the publishing market and the resistance of editors who repeatedly asked him to streamline his work and soften his tone. "I'm a madman," says Nicosia. "You have to be a madman to be a writer in this country."

Born in Berwyn in 1949, Nicosia grew up in the working-class suburb of Lyons. By his own account he was shy, more concerned with poetry than politics. "I was a pretty timid Catholic kid. I was against the war. I wasn't up shouting....I was having enough problems just dealing with my family."

Nicosia's father was a postal carrier, and his parents' marriage was constantly threatening to unravel. "We were poor. I remember my dad was making about $5,000 a year when I was growing up. My father was an angry person for his own reasons--his father had died when he was very young and he never got over it."

As a student at UIC, Nicosia never took part in the hard-core demonstrations, though he had friends who did. In August 1968, during the Democratic National Convention, Nicosia stayed home. "I didn't have the self-confidence and poise to go out and get arrested."

In 1977, having completed his graduate work at UIC, Nicosia published Bughouse Blues, a book he wrote with Richard Raff about gay hustlers in Washington Square Park. That same year he started working on Memory Babe. He was drawn to the beats because of the way they fused political and social concerns with literary ones. Following two years of research and interviews, Nicosia moved to San Francisco to get closer to his subject.

Meanwhile, he'd begun cultivating friendships with Vietnam vets. Through his writing teacher, poet Michael Anania, he'd met W.D. Ehrhart, who wrote Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir. In 1984 Nicosia met Kovic, the highly decorated, twice-wounded Marine whose war memoir Born on the Fourth of July had just established his national reputation. Through Kovic, Nicosia was introduced to a number of VVAW activists, and their stories--depression, drug abuse, alienation--were sobering and unrelenting. "I saw people with broken marriages, lost jobs, and homelessness. I thought, these people are still dying from this war."

Kovic introduced Nicosia to an air force vet named Bobby Waddell, whom he'd become friends with during his rehabilitation at the Long Beach VA hospital. Kovic and Waddell styled themselves as beat hipsters, Nicosia says. "They used to ride around the country in an old car, pretending they were Kerouac and [Neal] Cassady. Ron was Kerouac, the writer, and Bobby was Cassady, the handsome guy behind the wheel." But during his stint in Vietnam, Waddell had gotten hooked on smack, and back in the States his heroin addiction became his slow undoing. In the mid-80s he spent two years in prison.

In March 1987 Nicosia went to visit Waddell at the state penitentiary in Tehachapi, California, where Waddell implored him to write about Vietnam veterans. "He said, 'You did it for the beats, now you should do it for the vets.'" Nicosia quickly prepared a proposal that his agent submitted to various publishers, and he signed a contract with Norton in December 1987.

Over the next two years Nicosia conducted some 300 interviews. The deeper Nicosia got into the material, the more outraged he became at the conduct of the government. Unfortunately, his editors at Norton didn't share his outrage. In January 1990, after submitting the first portion of the manuscript, Nicosia received a terse letter announcing his contract had been canceled.

"The letter said I was too critical of the government, [the book was] too left-wing, and I needed to say more positive things about the Vietnam war." But he didn't want to be less critical: "It was clear to me the government had treated these men very badly." Even worse, he was desperately in need of money; he had been about to receive a scheduled payment of $15,000 from Norton when the contract was canceled.

Lucky for Nicosia, Oliver Stone's film version of Born on the Fourth of July had just been released. Pocket Books signed Kovic to write a comprehensive autobiography, and Kovic asked Nicosia to edit it. "He dictated 5,000 pages into a tape recorder, and my job was to make it look like a book.

"I collected a paycheck for two years, but for me it was more than that," says Nicosia. "It was two years of my creative work. At the end, I think it was therapy for Ron. He dictated his darkest side, the anger at his sexual impotence. He was a good Catholic boy, so he never had sex before he went into the military. He's never had the experience of sex, and that has absolutely driven him crazy. It was a book that revealed his dark side, much more so than Stone's movie." When they were done Kovic bought the book back from Pocket, effectively suppressing his confessions.

In 1992 Nicosia secured a new contract for Home to War with Grove, the publisher of Memory Babe. He was divorced and remarried by then, and living in the San Francisco suburb of Corte Madera. Just as he was establishing a new working rhythm, Grove was acquired by Atlantic; Nicosia's editor, Walt Bode, lost his job, and the contract was canceled. Nicosia struck a new deal with Henry Holt in 1995. The book had swelled to more than 2,000 manuscript pages, and Nicosia was slowly putting the sections together when Holt was acquired by a German conglomerate. The new owners terminated his contract, saying he'd missed his deadline. Nicosia's agent, Deborah Schneider, exhausted by the mangled trajectory of the project, told him she could not resell the book and advised him to walk away from it.

Nicosia fired her and began circulating the manuscript himself. It was rejected by 30 prospective buyers in 1998 before Philip Turner, an editor with the Random House imprint Times Books, interceded on his behalf. Nicosia had already cut 700 pages, and executives at Times Books said if he cut another 300 pages they would offer him a contract. Nicosia gritted his teeth and did it, editing out a section about his friend Larry Heinemann, who'd won the National Book Award in 1987 for his Vietnam memoir Paco's Story.

Nicosia signed the Times Books contract in October 1999. In January 2000 Turner informed Nicosia that the lease between Random House and Times Books had elapsed. On the verge of publishing purgatory one more time, the book was transferred to a different Random House subsidiary, Crown. Published, at last, in April, Home to War has garnered respectfully guarded critical notice. "This book is testament to a laudable obsession," Michael Kazin wrote in the Washington Post. A Los Angeles Times review called the book "essential."

Now 51 and the father of two young children, Nicosia is eager to begin work on a new book, tentatively titled Blackness in the Land, about Mumia Abu-Jamal. He hasn't got a contract yet, but he's not worried. Just as Al Nellums opened up Nicosia's curiosity about Vietnam, another experience at UIC shaped his attitude toward his work.

"There was a meeting of mostly creative writing instructors," Nicosia says. "Somebody was asking Sterling Plumpp why there was so much political writing in his poetry [and said] that he did not think it was that beautiful as poetry, that he seemed to be promoting political causes. [Plumpp] said if you were a black person in this society, you don't have the leisure, privilege, time, and space to waste on pretty things. There were too many urgent things going on....I probably started in that camp, the lyrical beauty of poetry. Beginning with the war, I started realizing we are becoming a more inhumane society. If you're a writer, and if you have a voice, you need to be a voice for the voiceless. You need to be a voice for the people in need."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

Add a comment