OAKLAND -- As a young naval officer in the 1960s, Kenneth Levin served on a river assault group in Vietnam. That war experience inspired him to write a book. A project long in the making but well worth the effort, Levin's novel, "Crazy Razor," chronicles the lives of two men, one American and the other North Vietnamese, and the effect the Vietnam War had on each.
"Crazy Razor" begins in early 1968 with U.S. Naval Reserve Lt. J.G. Clark Coburn stationed aboard the guided missile cruiser USS DeKalb in Newport, R.I. In Hanoi, meanwhile, astute civil engineering student Tran Vo enjoys the respect and admiration of professors and fellow university pupils. But within months, each becomes heavily involved in the war.
"Crazy Razor," Coburn's radio call sign, is a fictional work. And Coburn and Vo (referred to throughout the book by his given name -- the family name comes first in Vietnamese culture) are fictitious characters. Nonetheless, Levin's writing paints a picture of stark reality.
"I don't think there's a character in the book that wasn't a piece of a real person," Levin said in an interview at the Rockridge home that he shares with his wife, Eileen. "Some are combinations of people. Some are real people with another name slapped on them. Other than somebody writing science fiction or pure flights of fantasy, I don't think that good fiction can be written without a strong basis of fact, experience and your own emotion."
Levin, a decorated veteran, served 15 years in the Navy (1968-69 in Vietnam), attaining the rank of commander before failing vision (Levin is legally blind) forced him to retire. He hoped to write the book back in 1981. But with a wife and two young sons, Ben and Danny, now 35 and 34, respectively, writing took a back seat.
Levin worked 17 years in marine engineering and naval architecture, got into Merchant Marine advocacy, and then directed the business of the San Francisco bar pilots for a decade before retiring in 2009. By then, the writing bug had returned stronger than ever.
"I figured I would work five years, then write," said Levin, now 70. "Then five years turned to 10, 15 ... mortgages, college educations ... but once the switch went off in my brain that I was going to retire, the signal also went off that I was going to move on -- that if I didn't write that book now, I never will."
Wounded twice while ambushed on boats (the second causing Levin to fall into the Saigon River -- "it was like a biological soup," he said -- which some doctors believe led to his vision loss), Levin drew from his own war experience to write the book. Years later, he returned to Vietnam for purposes of fact-checking and to better understand the war and life from a North Vietnamese perspective. Unlike the vilified enemies of many war books, Levin humanizes the North Vietnamese. Ultimately, readers will find Vo much more likable than Coburn.
"From what I guessed at, from talking to these people and from my research, I was able to portray the North Vietnamese as real people," Levin said.
Readers of a certain age will notice parallels between Levin's vignette style and the TV miniseries based on Herman Wouk's World War II classic, "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance."
An admirer of Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny," Levin grew up a voracious reader of history who later gravitated to Mark Twain, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis.
"But the biggest influences on my writing," Levin said, "what really made me want to write, were three writers: Nicholas Monsarrat, an Englishman and Royal Navy officer in World War II who wrote 'The Cruel Sea;' Erich Maria Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front;' and most importantly, Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese soldier who was the sole survivor of his battalion, who wrote 'The Sorrow of War.' "
"Crazy Razor" by Kenneth Levin is available online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and other booksellers. List price is $19.95 and a Kindle version sells for $9.95. Levin's second book was recently published and should be available at amazon.com and in a Kindle version in a few weeks. Called "The Many Deaths of Comrade Binh: Tales From the Vietnam War," a collection of short stories; priced $16.