Reviewed by Anastasia Olashaya-Grill
We at cahoodaloodaling had the honor and pleasure to read the first section of Richard H. Kirshen’s novel, A Matter of Contrast, in its unpublished state. The following is a review of Kirshen’s manuscript.
While the human race does an awful lot of obsessing over every facet of life and death, scrutinizing this inevitable dichotomy for every minutiae of meaning or insight, few people understand the truly fleeting nature of existence. Doctors, disaster survivors, soldiers—all have had a front row seat to the simple, joyous highs and darkest, most depraved lows. But none, arguably, have seen this with such intimacy as a soldier in the midst of war.
Richard H. Kirshen’s A Matter of Contrast is not a perfect book—but it is a perfectly authentic and real account of one man’s time as a sailor in Vietnam and his civilian return roughly forty-two years later. The majority of time Kirshen spent in Vietnam in 1967—and, to a lesser extent, Cambodia—was aboard a boat: Usually a LCM-6, but later on an Angkor pleasure cruise ship in 2009. Kirshen recounts moments of both beauty and horror in Vietnam; among the many blind firefights with Vietcong were also moments of surprising hope or normalcy of human existence such as the time a pregnant Vietnamese woman gave birth in his boat as he was ferrying her to the medical hut across the river.
Alternating between past and present, the two trips are, understandably, different. The differences between a tourist and a combatant are more than huge: they are differences in generation, in mindset, in world economy. But everything boils down to being a matter of perspective—and perspective comes from as much from insight and memory as it does empathy or guilt.
What this non-fiction account lacks in finesse it makes up for in honesty. Not just about the war but Kirshen’s own biases as a human being which adds an odd level of familiarity and warmth to an otherwise chagrined, and perhaps jaded, point of view. But the jadedness is welcomed and refreshing. There is no pandering or overindulgence in forced political correctness. At most it is humanist reminder that there is always more than one way of seeing a situation, more than one way to witness; that it takes many eyes and many accounts to properly weave a full and accurate tale, and knowing that ever obtaining the complete intricacies of a given time and place can never truly come into being. At worst, it is a man pondering a world-shaking experience of which he was a part and had a hand in shaping its conclusion, as well as all the aftershocks that came with it, and trying to make sense of it all.
Whichever way this novel is viewed, it is all a matter of contrast. In all its breathtaking moments of awe, good or bad, there can only be a give and take and life only continues progressing forward. There is now only what there was before; a history and a past that cannot be changed—only learned from and never forgotten.
Richard H. Kirshen is a retired business owner, and Navy veteran, living in South Florida, where he was raised. He has been married for 41 years, has two sons, and three grandchildren, and is just getting the hang of this retirement thing.