The Odd Angry Shot by William Nagle isn’t very long, but it packs a huge punch. The story is based on the author’s own experiences as a soldier in the Australian Army during the Vietnam war.
The action starts at the Richmond RAAF base (near Sydney), with the narrator about to hop on a plane to Vietnam. The narrator has just celebrated his nineteenth birthday with a party in the backyard of his family home with 80 people, where his girlfriend gave him the traditional gift down behind the shed, where nobody would surprise them. The narrator is crude and unsophisticated, a stereotypical Australian man of the time.
On landing in Saigon, the narrator comments on the amount of corpses going the opposite way to him and his squadron, however he and his mates soon get used to the death and blood and vomit and constant rain and boredom and gambling which makes up their days.
He watches his mates die around him as they fight a war that they know many Australians condemn, while looking forward to going on leave where they will drink themselves senseless and spend the remainder of their money on prostitutes. The soldiers arrange fights between pet spiders and scorpions, criticise the Army cooks, make fun of bureaucracy and the military hierarchy. They shoot Vietnamese women’s sons and beat up the Vietnamese men who try to rob them. They suffer from tinea and they miss their mothers and wives and girlfriends, even though their girlfriends break up with them while they are away. Eventually, if they are lucky, they get a plane ticket home again.
The Odd Angry Shot is all the more powerful for not going into the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War. The story was made into a movie of the same name in 1979, and starred a who’s who of Australian actors of the time, including Bryan Brown, John Jarratt, John Hargreaves, Graeme Kennedy and Graeme Blundell, amongst others. The book won the National Book Council Award in 1975.
The character’s language is very Australian and the swearing rife (also very Australian). The Odd Angry Shot is funny and tragic and probably should be taught in school, although the crudeness of the humour and language would probably make the book unsuitable for children. I expect this is a story I will remember in years to come (which is my definition of a classic).