Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Namesake as Co-Author

There’s a second ‘Jeff’ in my brother Jeff Sharlet’s story. He’s my son, the namesake. Born three years after the death of the uncle he never knew, he was destined to become a best-selling author, a writer for Rolling Stone, and my co-author. Sure I had pictures of my brother in the house, but for a small child they didn’t mean much. I had stored the modest archive of papers and photos my brother left behind in the basement. Of course there were copies of his underground GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI (VGI).

Sometime later, my son, a curious teen rummaging around the basement, came across the archive. On top was VGI for August ’69 with a grainy photo of my brother within a black border. As my son Jeff would write years later, it was of “a skinny, frowning man with his hands stuffed into the pockets of Army fatigues, a cigarette glued to his lip, a black eyebrow arched as if he’s saying, ‘Get a load of this’. Behind him, Vietnam.” Across the page in bold was Jeff Sharlet Dies. It began: “Many good men never came back from Nam. Some came back disabled in mind. Jeff Sharlet came back a pretty together cat. And he came back angry.” At last, his namesake had made the connection – the pictures on my wall and my younger brother he never met.
Jeff Sharlet Dies

Time passed, Jeff the younger went off to college. A year earlier he and his sister had lost their mother, my ex-, to illness. As I had readied Nancy’s house for the market, I came across numerous writings of hers – in drawers, cupboards and cubby holes, an astonishing volume of material which, as it turned out, she had never shown to anyone. With my daughter off in college, her brother still in high school, I packed the writings into a small trunk for another time. Several years later Jeff was casting about for a senior thesis topic and out of curiosity opened the trunk containing his mother’s trove of essays, character sketches, story fragments, diaries. Dubbing her ‘a secret writer’, he wrote a thesis based on her work. Jeff’s mentor judged his thesis exceptional, good enough to get him a reading by a New York literary agent who took him on. The secret writer had launched her son’s career.

The young writer served his apprenticeship on various publications, including a stint as editor-in-chief of a small magazine, before he decided it was time to write a book. Soon after, his first appeared to excellent reviews. As he worked on his next book, Jeff became a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and Oxford American. His second book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, struck a chord in the national political discourse and became a New York Times non-fiction best seller.

One afternoon in New York while having drinks with the chief editor of a major publisher, Jeff happened to casually mention the memoir I was writing on my brother. Her eyes lit up, and she asked for details, saying “If your father will let you on the book, I’ll give you a contract.” Jeff called and very hesitantly broached her idea, sensitive that it was my book project. Listening for a few minutes, I interrupted, saying, “This is a no-brainer, you’re an established writer, I’m a social scientist. You’re on as co-author.”

The two of us have brought complementary skills to the project – I as a long experienced researcher who for years taught courses on the Vietnam era; Jeff the younger as a quick study and gifted story teller. Witness his ability to weave a compelling narrative from a set of facts, a character’s voice, and the mood and texture of the scene in the opening of his Rolling Stone profile of Jim Webb. Webb was a much decorated Marine officer in Vietnam; author of Fields of Fire, a stirring novel of the war; and, on this occasion, the newly elected senator from Virginia:

As night settles between the two mountain ridges that rise on either side of Lebanon, Virginia, a rough little strip of a town in the state’s southwestern corner, Senator James Webb’s people assemble in the Russell County Courthouse. They’re coal miners and miner’s wives, a third of them in the camouflage strike gear of the United Mine Workers, many of them wearing ball caps declaring them veterans of Korea, Vietnam or Iraq. A leather-skinned veteran named Eldridge tells me in a raspy whisper that he voted for Webb because Webb, a novelist and historian, had gotten these people, mountain people, right in his most recent book,a best-selling history of the Scots-Irish in America ….‘We’ve got our own ghosts and goblins,’ Eldridge says, and he thinks Webb sees them. ‘He has the Second Sight’.*
His latest book, his fifth, published this summer, now behind him, Jeff the namesake is bringing his considerable literary talents to bear on the story of brother Jeff and his times. Together we’re determined to create for Jeff a niche in the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement.

*Jeff Sharlet, “James Webb’s Never-Ending War,” Rolling Stone, June 14, 2007, pp. 79-80.

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