Ken Bumpus, a retired U.S. Navy officer and photographer who spent three tours of duty in Vietnam, has written a novel about a way of life he knew well. The protagonist is Buster Brady, senior chief photographer’s mate, and the setting is the Vietnam War. The other major characters are the photographers he commands. They are known generically as “those crazy camera guys.” As they travel together in and out of war zones, they refer to each other primarily by their nicknames–Jerry Madison is “Mad Man”; Aloysious Jameson is “A.J.”; Rico Cessario is “Little Caesar”; David Lin is “Ding-a-Ling”; Donald Reddick is “Redneck.”
The novel opens with Brady and his staff flying home from Vietnam to the United States, their hazardous tour of duty apparently over. Opening with that scene is a tactical error for a novelist, because it erases any tension readers might feel about whether the protagonist and the supporting cast will emerge from their Vietnam assignments unscathed.
Bumpus builds the narrative largely around dialogue among the photographers and sometimes between these characters and outsiders, whether American military, American civilians, or Vietnamese friends and foes. That is another tactical mistake, for at least two reasons. First, the dialogue, while quite likely authentic, emanates an insider-ish feel. A reader never carrying a camera on military assignment in a war zone would quite likely find some of the dialogue alienating, maybe even baffling. Second, writing dialogue is not Bumpus’s strength. His dialogue rarely serves to move the narrative forward, giving the novel an ennui that is especially stark considering the action-packed backdrop of war.
Capturing a way of life among an elite corps in a specific setting gives Those Crazy Camera Guys value as an educational tool. Quality fiction, however, must rise above the educational, a level this novel, unfortunately, fails to achieve.