Michael Herr

Amer­i­can writer whose Viet­nam War book, Dis­patches, was hailed as a model of New Jour­nal­ism

The Daily Telegraph - - Obituaries - Michael Herr, born April 13 1940, died June 23 2016

MICHAEL HERR, who has died aged 76, was the au­thor of Dis­patches, the de­fin­i­tive ac­count of the war in Viet­nam; John le Carré called it “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time”.

“I went to cover the war and the war cov­ered me,” wrote Herr, who from 1967 un­til 1969 was in Viet­nam as cor­re­spon­dent for Esquire. “Have you come to write about what we’re wear­ing?” a sol­dier asked him, al­lud­ing to the magazine’s tra­di­tional fo­cus on men’s fash­ion.

How­ever, it had also be­gun to pub­lish ar­ti­cles by the likes of Nor­man Mailer and Tom Wolfe that used tech­niques of re­portage tra­di­tion­ally re­served for lit­er­a­ture. Al­though he ac­tu­ally filed very lit­tle from Viet­nam, Herr be­came a cen­tral fig­ure in this “New Jour­nal­ism” with the pub­li­ca­tion in 1977 of Dis­patches.

Writ­ten with both high-oc­tane im­me­di­acy and trance-like lyri­cism, it con­veyed pre­cisely not the events of the war, nor even per­haps episodes which had ac­tu­ally hap­pened, but its mood, in which the eter­nal cer­tain­ties of death and de­feat were dulled by drugs and em­braced to a sound­track of rock ‘n’ roll.

“There was such a dense con­cen­tra­tion of Amer­i­can en­ergy there,” he wrote, “Amer­i­can and es­sen­tially ado­les­cent, if that en­ergy could have been chan­nelled into any­thing more than noise, waste and pain, it would have lighted up In­dochina for a thou­sand years.”

Though there were de­scrip­tions of com­bat, Herr’s van­tage point was that of a writer rather than a sol­dier. None the less, so in­tense was the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing there that he rapidly aban­doned any no­tions of ob­jec­tiv­ity, em­bed­ded as he was with the or­di­nary in­fantry­men, many of them teenagers, whose per­spec­tive he ab­sorbed.

“You can­not be de­tached,” he later ob­served. “If you are, you don’t get it, how­ever much you want to be a pure observer. If you are neu­tral, you don’t un­der­stand it.” But the price of this re­vealed it­self when he re­turned to New York, and when he had al­ready writ­ten much of the book.

“Within 18 months of com­ing back, I was on the edge of a ma­jor break­down,” he re­vealed. “It hit in 1971 and it was very se­ri­ous. Real de­spair for three or four years; deep paral­y­sis. I split up with my wife for a year.

“I didn’t see any­body be­cause I didn’t want any­body to see me. It’s part of the at­tach­ment. You get at­tached to good things; you get at­tached to bad things.” But when he man­aged to fin­ish the mem­oir, it was at once recog­nised as a mas­ter­piece.

“It sum­mons up the very essence of the war,” thought the nov­el­ist Robert Stone, “the dope, the Dexedrine, the body bags, the rot, all of it.” “It’s as if Dante had gone to hell with a cas­sette record­ing of Jimi Hen­drix and a pock­et­ful of pills,” wrote John Leonard in the New York Re­view of Books. As it was, Dis­patches also proved to have ab­sorbed most of Herr’s creative en­ergy.

Of Jewish de­scent, Michael David Herr was born on April 13 1940 in Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky. The fam­ily soon moved to Syra­cuse, New York, where his father worked as a jew­eller. David at­tended Syra­cuse Univer­sity, where he wrote for the lit­er­ary magazine, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, but he soon dropped out to travel.

He picked up oc­ca­sional com­mis­sions from the press, be­ing hired and then fired by a film magazine for “lik­ing all the wrong movies”. Herr got his job with Esquire af­ter strik­ing up a friend­ship with its ed­i­tor and pitch­ing the idea of a monthly let­ter from Viet­nam.

Al­though Dis­patches sat­is­fied his am­bi­tion to be recog­nised, he soon dis­cov­ered that he loathed the con­se­quences of fame. He es­pe­cially dis­liked be­ing asked by news­pa­pers to write about Viet­nam. “Haven’t you read my f------ book?” he ex­claimed. “I’m not in­ter­ested in Viet­nam. It has passed clean through me.”

In­deed, he never re­turned to the coun­try, and in 1980 moved to Lon­don in search of a qui­eter ex­is­tence. Yet both the sub­se­quent works for which he was best known drew on the ex­pe­ri­ences that had made his name.

In 1979, he wrote the nar­ra­tion spo­ken by Martin Sheen’s char­ac­ter in

Apoca­lypse Now, Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s film of the war. Al­though based on Joseph Con­rad’s novel Heart

of Dark­ness, the movie’s cin­e­matic lan­guage shared many of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Herr’s book.

John le Carré sub­se­quently in­tro­duced Herr to an­other di­rec­tor, Stanley Kubrick. Long res­i­dent in Bri­tain, he and Herr be­came good friends, en­joy­ing lengthy, cig­a­rette-fu­elled tele­phone calls in which they dis­cussed lit­er­a­ture. Kubrick hoped to per­suade Herr to script a film about the Holo­caust, but in­stead the two even­tu­ally col­lab­o­rated on one about Viet­nam, Full Me­tal Jacket (1987). Lon­don’s Dock­lands, then still in a state of de­cay, stood in for South-East Asia dur­ing film­ing.

Kubrick’s par­si­mo­nious at­ti­tude to pay­ment af­fected their re­la­tion­ship, how­ever. “Stanley was a good friend,” re­called Herr, “and won­der­ful to work with, but a ter­ri­ble man to do busi­ness with, ter­ri­ble.” In 1991, he re­turned to Amer­ica, where he made a liv­ing do­ing what he called “a wash and a rinse”, un­cred­ited rewrites of screen­plays for Hol­ly­wood.

Kubrick asked him to “col­lo­qui­alise” the script for what proved his last project, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which starred Tom Cruise and Ni­cole Kid­man. Herr re­sisted his blan­dish­ments, as­tutely pre­dict­ing that the shoot would last much longer than the six months sched­uled; it even­tu­ally took 15.

As well as a brief mem­oir of Kubrick, Herr pub­lished two other books. The Big Room (1987) con­tained pro­files of stars of Hol­ly­wood’s golden age, while Wal­ter Winchell (1990), a bi­o­graph­i­cal novel about the broad­caster that had be­gun as a script, ex­am­ined the rise to dom­i­nance in Amer­i­can life of en­ter­tain­ment.

Lat­terly, how­ever, he had de­voted more time to Ti­betan Bud­dhism, which he prac­tised at his home in New Eng­land. Herr at­trib­uted his com­ing to terms with what he had seen in Viet­nam to the heal­ing power of med­i­ta­tion.

“I know this,” he said, “that what­ever you are deal­ing with is real all right, but what you do with it is in your mind… You take re­spon­si­bil­ity in your own mind, and that is how I cleaned it all out.”

He is sur­vived by his wife Valerie and by their two daugh­ters.

Herr and, be­low, his 1977 book, praised for its lit­er­ary ap­proach to re­port­ing the na­ture of war

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