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Richard Cambridge: In Medias Res

A review of Some Months in 1968

By Baron Wormser

Woodhall Press

Release date: Oct 2, 2022

$19.98

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“So here we are,” begins Some Months in 1968, Baron Wormser’s novel that spans January to June of the tumultuous flashpoint year of the second half of the 20th century. We are dropped in medias res into the den of a home in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, where Tom, the eldest son of Daniel and Helen Brownson, tells his parents he has dropped out of college. He is now in the crosshairs of the draft board and will be re-classified 1-A — a good chance he will be sent to — and possibly die in Vietnam.

It’s a daring move, an opening gambit for Wormser and Tom whose only explanation on the surface appears passive, thoughtless, even reckless: “…I need to live, and being in school was not living…and I couldn’t pretend anymore.” 

To set the stage: At the end of January the North Vietnamese launch the TET Offensive killing 1,500 Americans, shattering the illusion that the United States was winning the war; TV anchor Walter Cronkite’s prime-time broadcast in February declared “the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate;” In March Senator Eugene McCarthy nearly defeats President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary and Senator Robert F. Kennedy enters the race, followed by Johnson’s national address on the 31st that he will not seek a second term as president; four days later, April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated, triggering riots in over 110 cities; and 63 days later on June 6 Kennedy is assassinated after winning the California primary. Throughout this time and beyond the antiwar and civil rights movements joined in near-constant protest marches across the country. It was the year when “simmering political and cultural resentments exploded [and] nearly every week produced news of another earth-shattering event.”1

With this barest thread of conscience, Tom throws himself into the unexplored city that has always been at his doorstep, driving around in his car like a divining rod, “waiting for the city to tell me something” playing a kind of geomancy “and say aloud, ‘Turn right,’… ‘Now left,’ [ ] a random point in his random drive” to a diner where after a late-night coffee and burger the waitress hands him a piece of paper with her phone number on it, which leads him to her row house. Her name is Sharlene Ricks, a Vietnam war widow with a son, three-year-old Travis. He sees the photo of her husband, and she tells him “I’m left holding the emptiness.” This isn’t lost on Tom.

For Tom, since wonder seemed to have become a permanent state, there was no surprise in listening to Sharlene. He could imagine his mother sitting with one of their neighbors in a year or so and talking about her late son Tom. He could see Helen crying. It didn’t take a lot of wonder.

She is desperate for love, and Tom obliges, and they begin an affair. Eventually, and reluctantly she reveals her husband’s name was also Tom.2

We follow Tom as his conscience develops. He explores all the possibilities for and against the war that are floating in the media sphere, including enlisting, but when he goes to a Quaker meeting with his father, he gradually comes to accept their stand against war and for peaceful resolution of conflict. He will defend himself as a conscientious objector before the draft board. 

He runs his plan by his black friend Reggie who reality-checks him.

“Sometimes, I can’t believe white people, which, by the way, is you. There’s not a black person in this country who would look forward to explaining themselves to anyone in the government about anything. Black folks would not bet a penny on anyone sitting there and actually listening. … That’s not gonna happen till the cow jumps over the moon.”

If they deny his plea, he faces a three-year prison term, or he can flee to Canada and be welcomed as a draft resister. His hearing is set for the 2nd week of June. 

Tom’s choice and the life-and-death reality of its implications work their way through his family like slow-motion implosions, each one coming to a personal reckoning. When his father discovers he didn’t submit his doctor’s letter for an injury deferment, he is stricken with grief and shares his personal trauma as a World War II veteran:

“War ruins people. We go on, but war ruins people. There’s a part of you that’s lost, and you’re never going to get it back. …What war puts into your life is this hole, this absence that’s about the death you saw and how death could have taken you but didn’t. You’re lucky. But you don’t feel lucky. You feel that what you cheated has cheated you, because you’ve seen how cheap life can be, how poor a body is.”

On the way to a cocktail party, Helen is so sick with worry over Tom that she asks Daniel to pull over so she can vomit.

Helen opened the door, staggered out, and started retching but nothing came out. Dry heaves. … Helen hoisted herself up some. “I can’t stand this waiting. It’s like waiting to see if he’s going to be executed.” 

His younger brother Herb challenges his teacher about tragedy while they are reading Shakespeare. “We have presidents who have enormous power — like they can blow up the world this afternoon … doesn’t that qualify as a tragedy? …And tens of thousands of people die for what seems like no reason, and we just go on and keep saying it’s okay and send more troops. Is that a tragedy?”

Sharon, who has changed her name to Starflower (Star for short) is the moral compass — guiding star if you will — of the novel. At sixteen, she’s the youngest but also the one with the most fully developed conscience. Rather than wallow in fear for her brother’s future, she confronts him. When he evades her with lame answers she says, “Don’t lay that trip on me. … I wasn’t born yesterday.” 

Culturally hip and politically aware, as the editor of the school paper, she writes articles against the war, for civil rights, reviews for the music scene, and attempts to organize a student strike when King is assassinated.  When her best friend Ruthie puts “White Rabbit” on the turntable, Star says:

“Wild isn’t it, how this song is on the radio with the ads for deodorants and Tums: ‘Here’s your favorite antacid and a song about mind expansion and, wait, here’s a news flash about how many died today in a place called Vietnam.’ You wonder what’s going through the disc jockey’s head. Like truth is rolling sideways, downhill, and backward all at once.”

And she’s a budding feminist. Hanging out with her brother Herb, she recalls, “As you know I lost my virginity to Steve Hamilton when I was fourteen. Lost is a stupid word, though, isn’t it? Like I mislaid it, like a pair of mittens.” Her mother worries that her daughter who “had been wild, going after boys” is not dating. “‘The whole thing is stupid’ was her summary comment when Helen brought up her lack of social life. ‘I’d rather attend to myself’ was her daughter’s only further remark, accompanied by a sly smile.” 

There is a generous amount of sex in the novel — frank dialogue and explicit scenes between Daniel and Helen, and Tom and Sharlene, but Wormser leaves the erotic charge to the characters. It’s a deft move that enables these vignettes to take their natural place while keeping them in dramatic balance with the composition of the whole.

Folded within the scenes are the brooding presences of Lyndon Johnson and Ho Chi Minh, counterweights on the scales of 20th-century history, the former representing a global power intent on maintaining its hegemony, the latter to establish a sovereign nation free from foreign domination. They are nearing the end of their natural lives: Ho Chi Minh will die in 1969; Johnson in 1973. They are meditations — soliloquies on power, war, death, endurance, and the will to be free. Johnson’s are pragmatic; Ho Chi Minh’s are philosophical. 

Johnson:

The biggest persuader, however, was not words but power. Power made men listen who otherwise wouldn’t have given Lyndon Johnson—a hick from Texas—the time of day. Power resided in money and knowing what to do with money, how to make money talk, how to get contracts for people, how to get laws made and unmade, all the coarse wrinkles that went into politics.

Ho Chi Minh:

Ideology was like a game of chess where the squares on the board kept changing but the pawns remained pawns. He wrote and wrote, and what he wrote made sense to him, but sometimes the game seemed senseless. …The words tumbled off his tongue and the tongues of others like so many agile acrobats.

Wormser essays into this territory as well with elegant asides — on the nation, Eugene McCarthy, Richard Nixon, TV culture, and John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.

The meditations form the dramatic spine of the novel, bind it, and make it whole. Joyce Carol Oates has an interesting take on this:

Great monologues exist all through theatre. Hamlet’s soliloquies are basically monologues. And some people think that Hamlet was constructed as a sequence of soliloquies, and then the play was kind of constructed around these great soliloquies. So it’s very exciting for a writer to just write a monologue without anything around it. One of these little monologues could be like the stepping stone to a novel. If the character comes alive, the person could be very much a character that you would want to write about.3

This is the essence of Some Months in 1968. Wormser has created a literary work that functions and is experienced simultaneously as a novel in a narrative arc in time — January to June of 1968; and as a play — a tragedy with a prologue, five acts, 156 scenes, and an epilogue. To paraphrase Norman Mailer’s subtitle of The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History4, Some Months in 1968 could be subtitled: History as a Novel as a Play.

Outside the meditations and without the formal architecture of the play, Wormser allows the story to find its own form as a novel-length (300+ page) work. He fashions intimate scenes set in the nation’s prime institutions — home, school, church, and the local diner — sustained and propelled by sparkling, kinetic dialogue. It’s a stunning achievement. 

The last chapter/act is June, but it is truncated when Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated. It functions as an epilogue, but one without closure or release. On June 8 the Brownson family goes to east Baltimore to witness the funeral train passing by on the way to Union Station, Washington, DC, and then to Arlington National Cemetery, created in 1864 to receive the Civil War dead. Kennedy’s Funeral Train is the long shadow of Lincoln’s funeral train in reverse, whose train departed Union Station, the first stop in Baltimore, on its 1,540-mile journey to Springfield, Illinois. 

It’s been only 63 days since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the country’s moral leader. We can never know if Kennedy would have been our political one. The assassinations are like two mirrors facing each other, forever reflecting into our country’s heart of darkness. 

The novel ends where it began: In medias res: Tom will go to the draft board the following week, fate unknown. To be continued are the unspoken last words of Some Months in 1968. They ripple to us here upon the shore of our own fractured time: an insurrection to overturn our democracy; a country so divided some fear another civil war. Will we ever know our better angels?


Notes

1. https://www.history.com/news/the-revolution-that-was-1968

2. See Baron Wormser’s novel, Tom o’Vietnam about a returning veteran suffering from PTSD, which I reviewed:  https://solsticelitmag.org/content/elegant-grieving-a-review-of-tom-o-vietnam-by-baron-wormser/  

In an email to Baron, I wrote: “Tom in Some Months in 1968 is the Tom in Tom o’ Vietnam. They exist in the parallel universes of fiction (your imagination), having made different choices: one to enlist, the other to resist. True?” He responded, “Yes, I knew I had to name this character Tom because in the sense that you mention they are related. I wanted to show the two sides of the issue except after I wrote Tom o’ Vietnam, I  had no idea I could actually write a book like Some Months in 1968. The ways of art are strange, as you know. I knew I needed different angles for two such books: Shakespeare for Tom o’ Vietnam and then the sheer chronology of the first six months of 1968, history as an experiential narrative but aerated, so to speak, by essays and biography and multiple points of view.”  27 August 2022

3. https://www.masterclass.com/classes/joyce-carol-oates-teaches-the-art-of-the-short-story/chapters/form-study-short-monologue

4. Mailer, Norman. The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History. New American Library. 1968. A nonfiction novel recounting the October 1967 March on the Pentagon.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Armies_of_the_Night


Copyright 2022 Richard Cambridge

Richard Cambridge is the author of three collections of poetry. He is a Fellow Emeritus of the Black Earth Institute, blackearthinstitute.org, a progressive think tank based in Wisconsin. He curates the monthly Poets’ Theatre series at the zoom platform, 08/30Club.org. His most recent project is in collaboration with Swiss musician and singer-songwriter George Hennig, writing lyrics for the album Songs From The Crossing, released in March, 2022.  

2 comments on “Richard Cambridge: In Medias Res

  1. kim4true
    November 4, 2022

    I’m a little stunned reading about 1968. I was alive then, but not really aware of what the news said.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      November 4, 2022

      I know what you mean, Kim. I was only 14 in 1968 and only vaguely aware of the politics of the time. I read Baron’s novel, and it is was profound for me to have well-drawn characters carrying out their lives against the background of huge social changes.

      >

      Liked by 1 person

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