This is no Disney movie, and there's no guarantee that everything is going to turn out okay. Myers drives this point home by killing off a man readers have gotten to know on Perry's very first mission. Every time the soldiers go on a mission, readers, like the characters themselves, know that someone could die at any moment.
It's not exactly a nice, calm read before bed.
But the story isn't all missions. Sometimes the guys are just hanging out in their hooch, messing with each other. That makes them feel human, which is a nice break, but also gives wartime passages like this even more power:
"The smell of it was terrible. Terrible and scary. Just the idea of being hit by a white phosphorous barrage sent a chill through me." (8.61)
Myers describes the war in vivid detail, from the thoughts of his main character to the smell. He makes the war personal, so the growing depression and confusion of the main character stays front and center.
We're just saying—you may need some chocolate and a bubble bath after this.
Historical fiction might not come to mind much while reading Fallen Angels, because, for the most part, the characters talk and act like modern young adults. But their references are dated, and there's an occasional scene, like the letters the soldiers get about draft dodgers (8.78), that remind us that we were in this war over forty years ago.
Fallen Angels was published in 1988, thirteen years after the fighting stopped. So for the author, it was very recent history.
Another thing about Fallen Angels? It's the kind of young adult book that could easily be read by old adults. The main reason it gets shelved in the YA section is how young the soldiers are. Richard graduated high school, but he's only seventeen. The other guys aren't much older.
They're trying to figure out where to go to college, what they want to be when they grow up—total teenage problems. They're just experiencing them amid the much more immediate problem of how to stay alive in a war.
We'll stick to the SATs and what to major in, thanks.
If you heard the title Fallen Angels and knew nothing about this book, soldiers in the Vietnam War just might not be your first thought. A religious book, maybe, or a paranormal story about sexy demons fighting.
When the word angels first shows up in the story, it's in a prayer that Lieutenant Carroll says over the first soldier Perry sees die: "Lord, let us feel pity for Private Jenkins, and sorrow for ourselves, and all the angel warriors that fall." (4.19)
When Perry asks Carroll why he referred to Jenkins as an angel warrior—kind of weird to call a down-and-dirty soldier who's trained to kill an "angel"—Carroll explains, "My father used to call all soldiers angel warriors…Because usually they get boys to fight wars. Most of you aren't old enough to vote yet." (4.20-21)
So he doesn't mean angel as in holy, exactly. He means angel as in young and innocent, like how your cheek-pinching grandma might call you her little angel. But in this case, the threat of gruesome death is hanging over you, so not exactly a trip to grandma's.
Unfortunately, Private Jenkins isn't the only one to die. Soldier after soldier bites the dust in this book. A huge part of the story is about how Perry, or any of his friends, could die at any moment. One man gets shot by a sniper while in the supposedly safe area of their hooch. Another gets killed by holding a child who's been mined. It's not pretty.
"Fallen" has another meaning, though, especially when connected with angels and religion. Sometimes, to fall means to have sinned. And these guys are definitely killers. Both Perry and Lobel have moments where they shoot a man they can see up close and personal, instead of some shadowy figure in the distance, and watch him die. No matter how much they're trying to get their side to win, it's not easy watching other humans die. Especially if you killed them.
Our author, Walter Dean Myers, isn't known for clear morals or easy answers. He's not saying these soldiers are bad, or good. Only that they're young.
It feels fitting that a book that starts with an airplane ride to Vietnam ends with the airplane ride home. That's why parallelism's great. Perry and Peewee flew to Vietnam together, and now, due to a mix of injuries and medical profiles (fun!), they get to go home together.
Simple enough, right?
As much as you want to tie it up with a neat little bow, it's not really all that simple. The ending isn't triumphant. Sure, Perry and Peewee finally got what they wanted: to go home. But their reactions aren't normal, happy reactions. Peewee's body shakes involuntarily. They hold hands. It's cute, but it's also because they're like, kinda traumatized.
Now that the question of whether they'll get home alive is answered, the question remains: will they get home okay? As in, psychologically? How will they transition from war to normal society?
Chances are it's gonna be tough to switch back to civilian mode. Remember when Perry was in the hospital the first time? A bunch of soldiers commented on how weird he was. And Perry knew he was being weird, but didn't know how to snap out of it:
"There was this feeling that everything I was going to say was either too loud or too strange for a world in which people did normal things." (16.120)
It's like that dream where you're in your underwear, but real life. And with a higher chance of death.
At that point, Perry's head was still in war mode. He had gotten used to a world where people didn't do normal things, where people were focused on fighting and survival. And that was before he saw some of his worst battles of the war.
If it was hard in the hospital, it's not about to be any easier going back to the actual real world. The airplane scene that ends the novel shows just how strange Perry and Peewee's transition to civilian life feels:
"Peewee stirred in his uneasy sleep. The plane droned on. A fat man complained that they didn't have the wine he wanted. We were headed back to the World." (23.110)
Doesn't exactly make you feel warm and fluffy. Peewee's uneasy, the plane drones on. Drone is a negative sound, and makes it seem like war is still weighing heavy on the main characters' minds. Then, in the middle of it all, there's a random man whose biggest problem is the right wine. He doesn't seem to realize there's a war droning on (despite being on a plane from Vietnam. Weird).
This dude might be a peek of what going back to the world will be like—being surrounded by people whose problems seem small after all they've been through.
Perry and Peewee might be okay, eventually. But it's going to be a tough transition. And there's not even the right wine to help them pave the way.
This is no cultural exploration story. You could say the setting is more the War itself, rather than Vietnam as a country. Because a soldier is the narrator, we don't get a window into the rich culture or complex politics of Vietnam, the way we might if the story was told from a Vietnamese point of view.
Perry's an outsider—a young man in an unfamiliar climate, trying to survive—so seeing the world through his eyes means seeing the base conditions of the soldiers. The elements we hear about, again and again, are the rain, the mugginess, and the discomfort. For Perry, Vietnam is a place of rats, bugs, water, and mud.
It's no vacation.
For Perry and the others, elements of the country that might otherwise be beautiful, like the trees and rice paddies, are seen as either obstacles or places to take cover. Sometimes, normal settings feel dangerous, just to reflect how anxious the narrator is:
"Peewee looked up at the sky. I followed his gaze. The skies were a dirty grey. There was a thick cloud cover, heavy and threatening above us. A large bird started into the air as if it had been thrown, then stopped, spread its wings, and glided in a great arc to the west." (17.29)
Notice how those thick clouds are described? In another situation, they might be called fluffy, instead of "heavy and threatening." The skies are "dirty," instead of shady or simply dark, and the bird looks like "it had been thrown," instead of just flying. Thrown, like a grenade. Perry's mind is so deep in the war zone that the setting is just a reflection of how he's feeling.
There's another part of the setting, though: the time period. The story takes place in the late 1960's, and even though what's going on back home is in the very background—mentioned in a letter from time to time, rather than at the center—it influences the story.
America was drafting soldiers to go to war, and people who got into college could defer getting drafted. What that means for the story is that most of the guys fighting with Perry, as well as Perry himself, are too poor to go to college. Perry went to war because he couldn't afford college and didn't know what else he could do.
Anti-war protests were picking up in the late 1960's. Brunner blames the protesters on the dwindling numbers of soldiers they had to fight with. "That's why we got four and five-man squads," Brunner said. (12.14)
While the anti-war sentiment would eventually lead to America pulling out of the war, in the time of the book, it made men like Perry feel more alone.
The soldier characters in this book are everyday eighteen-year-olds who lived just forty years ago. They use plain…let's call it "colorful" language. Essentially, they swear a lot. It's not rocket science to figure out what they mean.
Where you might get tripped up, though, is the unfamiliar setting, and all the army talk if you don't know army. Myers includes no glossary, so you might have to look a few words up yourself. Our Images and Websites sections should help you figure out what they're talking about when they talk about hamlets and rice paddies.
Other than that, you're good to go.
This book won't give you long, flowery theories or metaphors. It sticks to short sentences that make it clear what's going on.
And cursing. Lots and lots of [bleep]ing curse words all over the dialogue.
But that doesn't mean the writing is simple. The descriptions are detailed and sensory. The cursing makes the soldiers' conversation feel realistic. And a lot of attention is paid to how time moves when you're a soldier in Vietnam. The chapters between missions seem to fly by, and the descriptions of the missions themselves are long. During a mission, you're in Perry's head, moment-to-moment:
"Don't think. Don't even think of God. I thought. I thought of all the good things I had done in my life. I didn't deserve to die. I didn't want to die." (15.61)
Perry's trouble is he can't turn his brain off. He can't stop thinking when he's supposed to be all alertness and action. Walter Dean Myers' writing puts readers right in the middle of that problem, and the style is one way he drives the point home.
It's not just once that Perry and his fellow soldiers refer to their homes in America as the World. World, with a capital W, like it's a proper noun. Making it seem like a bigger deal, and much farther away.
For example. "I had never been a coffee drinker in the World, but now I wanted it. Now I needed it, anything that promised to get me to the next minute." (20.13)
Why not just say "back home?" And why the previous aversion to coffee?
Referring to "The World" is more about where they are now—a place that they see as not being in the world, or at least the world they're familiar with. Vietnam is, of course, on Earth (just to clear that up).
But the wartime zone they exist in seems so wrong and so inhumane to them that it might as well be a terrible otherworldly place, like Hell. (And you know Myers is always using supernatural imagery by referring to dead soldiers as angels, so it makes sense that he'd bring Hell into the picture.)
And it does sound pretty hellish. This war is a place where babies are killed, where children are mined, where nothing, not even the innocence of childhood, is sacred. It's a place where sometimes American soldiers kill other American soldiers by accident, and where Perry has to be okay with killing the enemy, even if he sees himself in some of the young men in the Vietcong.
To Perry and his fellow soldiers, the World is like a faraway dream. It's the goal, but sometimes, when things get really bad, they can't imagine going back.
Perry's friend Lobel is into movies. Like, really into them. It may seem out of place, or even a little obsessive for him to talk about movies when they're supposed to be looking out for the enemy.
Beside the point, much?
But really, thinking about movies is just the way Lobel copes with war. He tells Perry as much, during a nighttime watch: "I'd be real nervous, except I know none of this is real and I'm just playing a part." (6.24) Real healthy, Lobel.
Lobel uses movies to calm himself down and feel safe—even when he's really not. On his watch with Perry, he tells Perry they won't die because they're in the part of the movie where he, as the star, is "sitting in a foxhole, explaining how he feels about life and stuff like that. You never get killed in movies when you're doing that." (6.26)
Later, when they meet a Vietnamese girl named An Linh, Lobel leads his fellow soldiers in a fantasy where they take An Linh to Hollywood and rename her Arielle to get her parts. (4.93-105)
A little racist? Absolutely. But hey, lots of movie stars don't use their actual names, and more importantly, Lobel's thinking about making An Linh seem more imaginary. Renaming her Arielle turns her into a character in a story, instead of woman who lives in a war zone and is in danger of being killed.
With movies, Lobel's doing the opposite of keeping it real. He likes his war fake and shiny.
But sometimes war is so real that it crosses over into fake and movie-like again. The more horrible things Perry sees, the more his memories feel like movies: "They just kept coming, one by one. Short movies. A few seconds of a medic putting a tag on a wounded soldier. A few seconds of a chopper taking off over the trees. A guy cradling his rifle. A body bag." (8.107)
Now that's a montage you don't want to be a part of in real life.
Perry's cinematic flashes are a little different from Lobel's movie fantasies: Lobel's are more of a choice for getting through the days, while Perry's seem like a mental reaction to war.
In that way, Lobel's strategy for dealing with war becomes Perry's, too, in a slightly different way. Perry's brain stores his more awful war memories and replays them like short movies. If they feel fake, then Perry doesn't have to think about them —or be depressed by them—quite as much. That way, he can just imagine giving them a mediocre rating on Rotten Tomatoes and moving on with his life.
In the middle region of Vietnam, where Perry's platoon stays, for a lot of the year they're getting battered by persistent rain. Imagine the effect that would have on your mood—days and days of rain.
But rain doesn't just affect Perry's mood—it also reflects it. When something horrible happens, it often seems to be raining:
I saw the woman running across the paddy. I saw her fold backward as the automatic fire ripped her nearly apart. I saw part of her body move in one direction, and her legs in another.
The woman's other child stood for a long moment, knee deep in water and mud, before it, too, was gunned down.
I turned and saw Peewee walking away. The doll he made lay facedown in the endless mud.
It was raining again. (17.156-159)
Gives "putting a damper on your mood" a whole new meaning. Why did Myers choose to put that detail about the weather there, after a really intense scene of a child and a woman blowing up?
Did you notice how Perry doesn't say anything about his own feelings when that happens? He just paints the picture. His comment about the rain is the closest he can come to describing his feelings. It's like the sky is crying, while Perry tries to stay numb.
Perry can't let himself get too emotional about the war. He's busy trying to survive. So the rain is sometimes a stand-in for his sadness.
And unfortunately for him, that rain just keeps coming.
Richard Perry is a First Person Central Narrator, but with a side helping of First Person Peripheral. As in, the guy's definitely at the center of the story—his feelings and emotions about the war are the main ones we get—but the story's about his fellow soldiers, too. That's why the book's called Fallen Angels, with an 's.'
There are episodes that aren't about Perry at all, like Monaco's hallucination or Gearhart's letter to his wife, which Perry only reads because Gearhart gives him a copy in case he dies before he can mail it. Morbid, but good planning.
Pro tip for authors: if you want to tell the story of many characters through the point of view of one, make your main character a quiet, introspective good listener—the sort of character others like to confide in. With Richard Perry, Walter Dean Myers has this method down.
Except, war is scary. Waiting is better than fearing for your life in battle after battle.
That said, Perry does have to wait a whole lot on his journey to Vietnam. He, his new friend Peewee, and a quiet-ish nerd named Jenkins spend a bunch of time being shuffled from a plane out of Anchorage to a Japanese airport to another plane to an airport in Tan Son Nhut to barracks to a truck to Chu Lai.
They know they're going to war, but they don't know what's about to hit them. In this case, the waiting part might be better than the being there.
Perry, Peewee, and Jenkins join a platoon and replace men who died. Encouraging start. When the platoon goes on its first patrol, it's Perry's first time looking for and trying to hit the enemy—and his first time watching a fellow soldier die. All of a sudden, war gets real.
Each patrol duty and each mission, Perry's whole identity gets shaken by the war. He gets closer to his platoon, has to watch some of his friends and mentors die, and comes close to death a few times himself. Even when Perry's in a hospital, away from combat, getting a not-too-bad wound treated, he can't really enjoy his time off. He knows he has to go back in and keep risking his life. Scary stuff.
But not in a romantic way. More in a separated-from-our-squad-how-are-we-going-to-survive kind of way. True, it wasn't like being with the squad guaranteed protection, but at least that way they had a radio to call a chopper to get them out of combat. Peewee and Perry know they don't stand a chance against the huge number of Vietcongs in the area, so they spend a very harrowing night in a hole, hoping no one finds them. It really is amazing that they make it back alive.
Not two words you usually think of together. But Perry and Peewee's reaction—being happy about their injuries—shows you just how much they don't want to fight in the war anymore. Luckily, their injuries are minor enough that neither of them die or have a limb amputated, but major enough to send them home. Monaco doesn't have the same out, though. He drinks with Perry and Peewee for a couple days, then leaves to return to the platoon. Sorry, Monaco.
Perry and Peewee leave Vietnam on a jet plane, planning never to return (and it's hard to blame them). The book doesn't show what their life is like when they're back home, but it's pretty clear it'll take some adjusting. The weirdness of being on a civilian plane is enough to make Peewee's hands tremble and to make the guys clutch hands. Will they ever truly be able to leave their time in Vietnam behind them?