The Republic of South Korea is among the US’s key trading partners. Korea sends us electronics, automobiles, and immigrants. We send them GIs and the dollars they spend. Thousands of US soldiers serve along the cold, hostile DMZ, sacrificial cannon fodder poised to slow down the onslaught of another invasion, with thousands more a few miles south in the elegant comfort of Seoul and 8th Army Headquarters. Lucky dogs.
Life on a military post in Korea is duty, duty, duty, until a cannon sounds to designate the lowering of the flag at 1700 hours. At 5 p.m. most GIs, left to their own devices, will devise some movida or other in the Ville. If duty calls in the boonies--up on a mountain manning a missile site or guarding endless miles of barbed wire--the Ville will be a tiny collection of mud shacks where local farmers live, and one cinder block dirt-floored structure run by the Mama-san and serving black market GI booze, local Porta-Ju plum liquor, fiery Soju, and three or four worn-out prostitutes, “business girls”. For Headquarters GIs, however, the Ville runs to the deluxe: neon lights, rock bands, bevies of hostesses—a cornucopia of pulchritude--in club after club after club. There is one hang up. Soul Brother GIs go to their “tea houses,” Anglo and Latino GIs hang out within their own bailiwicks. When the twain meet, they explode.
That’s how Korea was back in 1969-1970, when I sat atop one of those mountaintops, later transferring to a Battalion Hq on the edge of mid-size Chunchon City. This is the Korea Martin Limón places his latest George Sueño and Ernie Bascom mystery, G. I. Bones. Set in the heart of Itaewon, the deluxe Ville adjacent to 8th Army’s main encampment in Seoul, G.I. Bones takes the popular "closed case" motif and draws out its links to the ongoing criminal enterprise that creates this particular Ville. Although I visited this place only once, briefly, that’s all it takes to recognize the authenticity of the wild party scenes that fill G.I. Bones.
Korea possesses a rich culture exemplified by its food, silk, ceramics, and architecture; out in the boonies geography creates spectacular scenery for those who elect to head away from the Ville. Many GIs, however, forego the culture and sightseeing to head straight for the Ville, where tea houses provide all the entertainment some young men crave, so far from home and US cultural strictures.
When GIs go too far, they get into deep kimchi. When the crime is big enough--murder, large scale black marketeering—Army CID investigators step in to dig out the details, identify the suspects, collar the bad guys. George Sueño and his partner Ernie Bascom are such a pair.
A Martin Limón detective novel has lots to recommend itself to police procedural enthusiasts. Owing to the intercultural setting, Limón’s novels have extra pleasures any reader should find fascinating. For an ex-GI, especially one who served in Korea, perhaps those there now, too, G.I. Bones rings with uncanny authenticity, from race riots to Om Rice (wonderful chop!), from the excesses of Ville rats to the “inscrutability” of GI-Korean interaction.
Sueño is an exception to the ugly Unitedstatesian GI. He’s a bit of a Ville Rat, heavy drinker, and skirt chaser. But Sueño reads and speaks Korean and treats locals, especially women, with respect, even the business girls. Given Sueño’s intercultural curiosity--evolving from his youth on the streets of East L.A.—he’s an especially adept investigator when the crime sends him deep into local culture as his novels always do. Oddly, Limón can’t make up his mind, in this novel, whether Sueño is Hispanic, Latino, or Chicano. He uses all three referents. Limón has been less reluctant to own chicanismo in other novels. Plus “Hispanic” was not a common parlance in the 1970s, so one might suspect an editor’s clumsy hand here.
G.I. Bones marks a giant departure for the Sueño character. Always working at the far reaches of authority but fiercely loyal to his country and his comrades, G.I. Bones sees Sueño fall madly in love with a Korean doctor who serves the local business girls and provides Sueño and Bascom entrée to this underworld, eventuating in solving the mystery of a 1950s-era G.I. skeleton found in the basement of a local club. The doctor is guilty of numerous crimes, but with Sueño’s assistance she defects to the North, pregnant with Sueño’s child. Probably. Sueño has been stupid and suckered many a time, but he's never been this vulnerable. The characterization adds richly to Limón's series and leaves me hungering for the next novel, with this huge event hanging over Sueño's head.
Weighing in at 266 pages, G.I. Bones provides wonderful local color of a culture so important to our contemporary US yet so unknown; excellent action--fist fights, gun fights, rotten slicky boys getting their due; heartbreaking pathos with sympathetic innocents suffering as if this is meant to be their lot in life. But more than any emotion, readers are rewarded with moving cultural empathy for los de abajo, no matter where they live, with no happy endings.
That's the final Tuesday of 2009, a Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga. And by the way, the links inside this story are photos I took during my 69-70 tour of Korea. Please leave a comment to ask for details or share your observations. Here from my Read! Raza site is a small guided tour of life on Bravo 7/5.
La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. If you have an Army experience of your own to relate to Limón's work, or another author, or an arts/cultural event review, perhaps a worthy thought from your writer's notebook, please click here to discuss your invitation to be La Bloga's guest.