For Rouenna, by Sigrid Nunez. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 208 pgs. $22.
If only Sigrid Nunez's new novel was really about Vietnam. The cover makes it seem so: a fleet of helicopters reminiscent of the Air Cavalry in Apocalypse Now flies in formation above an equatorial jungle of palm trees, mountains and mist. A letter, postmarked Staten Island, is presumably addressed to the title character, Rouenna Zycinski, a combat nurse who has never gotten over Vietnam.
Readers should be warned, however, not to expect a novel about the war or they will be disappointed. Instead, For Rouenna is about another woman entirely: a novelist in Brooklyn who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. Wallowing in self pity and unable to start her new work, this unnamed narrator strikes up an uneasy friendship with Rouenna, who, years ago, lived in the same housing project. Convinced that Rouenna is as mercenary as herself, Nunez's narrator keeps her at a distance until the retired nurse's suicide provides inspiration for her novel.
What this means is that this book is not "for Rouenna" at all. It is not about a nurse in Vietnam. Instead, For Rouenna is about what Nunez's Brooklyn narrator cannot move beyond: her failings, her fantasies, her false memories, her childhood trauma.
This is a pity, as it is Rouenna -- not the narrator -- who inspires genuine interest. Hugely overweight, the ex-nurse spends her time cooking whole turkeys for charity and lives in an apartment decorated with mismatched throw rugs, velour curtains and crocheted doilies. Her only companions are two parakeets named Romeo and Juliet. Described in such detail, Rouenna feels "real" in a way that Nunez's narrator does not.
Another problem with For Rouenna is that the very telling of her story lacks authenticity. It is composed almost entirely of conversations reconstructed from memory after her death. This could work, except that Nunez has made it clear that her characters have a superficial friendship. They have met, she says, precisely 16 times.
As a result, it would have been more powerful to use detective work to propel the plot, with Rouenna's suicide inspiring the narrator to seek the "truth" of her time in Vietnam. This could have created suspense and realism in an otherwise sentimental work. Instead, the plot of For Rouenna seems grossly contrived.
Ultimately, readers interested in the experiences of combat nurses in Vietnam would do better to explore one of the more moving memoirs on the market. The best is perhaps Home Before Morning by Lynda Van Devanter (University of Massachusetts Press, $18.95). Also good is the more recent World of Hurt: Between Innocence & Arrogance in Vietnam by Mary Reynolds Powell (Greenleaf Book Group, $12.95). Written by women who were there, these memoirs capture the poignancy of the war in a way that Nunez's novel cannot.
Ultimately, For Rouenna feels like a failed project. Aspects of this novel are beautiful and interesting, but they are undermined by the shallow self-obsession and mediocre torments of the unnamed narrator. A better novel would have focused exclusively on Rouenna herself. Novels, of course, do not have to be "true" to be powerful, but they need a good story. In For Rouenna, Nunez falls short of accomplishing even that.
Kay Chubbuck is an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, presently on leave to teach writing at Princeton University, including a course titled "Vietnam in Fact, Film and Fiction." She has published articles in Newsweek and other journals.