Souled Out: A Memoir of War and Inner Peace
by Michael S. Orban (Gabon 1976–78)
Reviewed by Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973–74)
MICHAEL ORBAN WAS 20 when the US government sent him to Viet Nam as a foot soldier in a politically-motivated undeclared war. He was a Catholic boy from Wisconsin, a thoughtful child who dreamed of traveling to exotic places. The concept of being killed by the residents of those places — or of killing them to escape that fate — had not been part of his National Geographic scenario.
The story of what happened next — of the traumatic return from the trauma of war; of depression, substance abuse, divorce — is familiar to those who have read the writings of former warriors like Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) and Robert Mason (Chickenhawk). But Orban’s tale takes an interesting departure from those of his veteran peers: he ran from Viet Nam’s jungle, to a jungle in the west-coast African country of Gabon, to escape his ghosts.
There, he lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a tiny village in the interior, where he discovered an endearing respite from his psychological struggles. Perhaps more importantly, he became reacquainted with his sense of wonder, and found that he was valued for his basic humanity. He also found purpose: Orban had been an emotional vagrant in the US; in Gabon, he lead a team of townsmen in constructing a school for the children of the village.
Orban so loved the assignment that he — pardon the military-speak — re-upped. But his extension in Gabon came to a painful halt when he was bitten by a Tsetse fly, and sustained a severe and unnamable infection. The Peace Corps sent him back to the US, where his condition baffled Tropical Disease experts. At last, a tenacious physician in his native Wisconsin diagnosed it as a rare form of filariasis, an invasion by nematodes.
The doctor cured his body, but he could not give Orban back his soul, which once again went MIA upon contact with American soil. As had his body, Orban’s mind baffled specialists in the field for more than ten years.
Then the VA discovered PTSD and began to treat his case. But even with the VA’s aid, Orban had to pick his way over a long and tortuous path to find his equilibrium.
Orban presents this path to others who suffer from PTSD. Souled Out provides a road map of experience that seeks to lead them closer to personal enlightenment.
I will confess that I was a bit reluctant to read this book, once I discovered what it was about. I’m a Viet Nam veteran myself, and have written about it, and I’m often thrown into company with others who’ve done the same. I’ve read a number of books over the years by Viet Nam vet authors. Initially, I enjoyed the genre.
However, recently, would-be authors came to find that they could cheaply self-publish their war non-fiction and — perhaps worse — their war fiction. I’ve grown tired of the genre; it’s hard to find an author who has something new to say.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Orban’s adventures caught me up, and made me turn pages. He was at his best when describing his life in Gabon. That, I found, was indeed new within the genre. He also painted a superb portrait of life with PTSD; I’ve known many sufferers, and it rang true.
Orban is no Hemingway — and no O’Brien or Mason. His prose is florid and adjective-driven, and tends to circle into repetition of his hard-won philosophies. I can readily agree with his meditations on the nature of war and soldiering, his notes on America’s obsession with riches, and his horror at the Catholic Church’s inability to practice its own prophet’s message of peace. I can fully relate to his ambivalence about our country’s schizophrenic reaction to its own adventures in Viet Nam. But it annoyed me that Orban kept re-stating all this, rather than letting his experiences tell the tale.
In addition, the book felt unevenly organized. As a reader, I resented having to dig far into the book to find such basic information as the year Orban served in Viet Nam, or at what point in his extension he suffered from his Peace Corps-ending disease (come to think of it, I still don’t know that). As an editor, I found his occasional use of “danglers” — dependent phrases that don’t modify the verb they’re supposed to (e.g: “Arriving home, the shock of re-entry was immediate”) — tooth-grinding. My second-grade teacher Sr. Stanislaus routinely smacked us with a yardstick for such transgressions.
These are glitches that would have been remedied by a crack editorial team at a major — or perhaps even a minor — publishing house, and they run rampant in self-published books like Orban’s. They brand the writer as an amateur, whether that’s technically true or not, and distract from the reader’s enjoyment of the “good stuff.
However, I must in fairness consider: how does one describe war, justified insanity and the landscape of a blighted spirit? Orban has done an admirable job with these things. Moreover, he has, with Souled Out, produced something of value for veterans and others who deal with PTSD — a book that therapists in the field would be wise to keep at hand, both for their own edification and their clients’.
If Peace Corps Volunteers strive to be Of Use, Orban has done this here — and I commend him for it. Hell, I envy him: he strives to aid, while I play with my imaginary friends. I also envy his Peace Corps experience itself — my own certainly fell short in the Usefulness category.
But I still want to know what he and the Pygmies actually talked about.
To order Souled Out, I would suggest going straight to Orban’s website, http://michaelorban.com . I found it listed on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, but only through secondary sellers. It does not seem to be available on Kindle or Nook.
Susan O’Neill is the author of Don’t Mean Nothing, a collection of short stories first published in 2001, now available in a new expanded edition on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She has co-edited Vestal Review, available in print and on line at http://vestalreview.net , since its inception in 2000, and has been nominated for a Pushcart in both fiction and non-fiction. She writes the essay blog Off-the-Matrix on this site.