Normally, it’s poets and novelists who want readers to approach their work with the open-minded generosity Coleridge called ”the willing suspension of disbelief.” Not writers of autobiography. But Philip Caputo comes right out and begs for it. ”I don’t want to hoodwink (naive readers) into thinking they’ve bought one thing,” writes the author of the best-selling Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War, ”only to find it’s another. There is too much fact in this book to properly call it a novel, too much fiction to call it reportage.”
The fictional parts Caputo is referring to are the brief interludes inserted between the chapters of his life story. But lest the literal-minded grow anxious about the rest, he assures us that in all other respects the history of his life and times as a Chicago Tribune correspondent on battlefields from Saigon to Beirut remains ”faithful to the facts of the major historical events, as well as to my actions in them.”
Now exactly why such a disclaimer needs to be made explicit in a book billed as nonfiction isn’t immediately clear. After all, novelists as diverse as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway have managed to write personal accounts of warfare without warning readers that they weren’t making things up. So what gives?
Possibly Caputo senses that he has stretched the liberal bounds of autobiographical license past the point of credibility. Many readers are likely to agree. Just about everybody has at one time or another met someone like the narrator of Means of Escape: energetic, intense, restless, highly emotional, glib, and given to a self-dramatization that borders upon narcissism. Afflicted by what he describes as a ”complicated disease: a phobia of everyday life, with its ruts and routines, its predictability that seemed first cousin to death,” Caputo joined the Marines after college and served as an infantry lieutenant in Vietnam. Having faced court-martial for covering up the killing of an unarmed Vietnamese civilian — a story told in considerable detail in A Rumor of War and rehashed briefly here — the author went into journalism, only, it seems, to have wider travels and more improbable adventures than Gulliver himself.
Caputo specializes in disarming confessions. Why does he understand terrorism? ”Because,” he writes, ”there is a spiritual kinship between the terrorist and the journalist: Both are incapable of coping with normality.” But can a man with such a penchant for melodrama be trusted to get the facts straight? The problem with Means of Escape, to put it bluntly, is that Caputo’s most dramatic moments and feats of courage are a shade too theatrical to be persuasive. In Chicago, mob henchmen booby-trap his car; in Beirut, he’s captured by fedayeen terrorists, visited by God in his cell, then released. A bit later, he’s cynically dismissive of ”foxhole conversions.” Every other episode seems to end with his narrowly escaping a lonely death.
What begins as a vague suspicion in the reader’s mind hardens into disbelief when the reporter survives a cross fire between Muslim and Christian militiamen in Beirut — ending up shot in the ankle right in front of a doctor’s apartment. ”I had become the topic of much speculation among my colleagues in the press corps,” Caputo admits. ”Why had the gunmen shot me? How had I managed to survive fifty or sixty bullets fired at close range? They were just doing their jobs, trying to make sense of the senseless.” Actually, Caputo’s colleagues were probably not contemplating the futility of war as much as they were questioning the man’s credibility. So a reviewer is merely doing his job in suspecting that Caputo has done more than merely blur the line between documentary and fantasy in a clever postmodernist way. He appears at times to have flat crossed it. C