Sometimes regular trawling through cheap and secondhand bookshops pays off. Yesterday I found John Mulligan's "Shopping Cart Soldiers", an autobiographical novel about Vietnam and the subsequent ordeal faced by the author on his return to America. The first 40 or so pages I have read are so harrowing, the word "harrowing" is inadequate to describe them. It's more like a fierce and unexpected punch in the gut followed by a hammerblow to the head. I sat in the benjo this morning reading his account of the moment where he kills his best friend to honour a pact they made to spare each other the horrors of dying slowly, and I actually almost wept--which is something I really don't make a habit of doing. The description is so vivid and so emotionally charged it reminded me of watching my own mother die, ten years ago, from cancer--probably a more tortured and undignified death than going with a bullet.
Any work of art that transforms your own emotions so dramatically is a great work, as far as I'm concerned. But don't look for this book if, as Dylan says, you "like (your) sugar sweet." This is bitter as a drink of warm poisoned water in Hell. Which is where John Mulligan was, and what he survived. An example to all of us who think we've got it tough.