I first came across Herr’s name – and extracts of his work – in the extra reading around the very best university class I took; perhaps the only one that stuck. It was a course focussing on The New Journalism of the late 1960s and 70s, the blending of fiction-styled narrative with journalism, the creation of the non-fiction novel as a form.
The big names associated with that course were Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson…that sort of thing, but a few of the pages of Dispatches were there in the extra notes. And as with names like George Plimpton and Gay Talese and Joan Didion I made a note, made sure to go back.
I finally read Dispatches right through just recently, well, about three years ago. I couldn’t believe, first of all, that a book of such hype so easily lived up to it. Here it was 40 years on nearly and fresh, vital, fascinating; brilliantly written.
I mentioned Herr, only briefly, in looking at Anthony Loyd, another war reporter I admire. I had always meant to write a piece about Herr, based almost entirely on just that one book. It was career-making for him. And it’s still very much a must-read if you haven’t I reckon. Even if you aren’t normally a fan of literature about war it’s still a great piece of writing.
Then I find that Herr, who was called by Hollywood following the success of the book, had in fact co-authored the script of one of my all-time favourite films, Full Metal Jacket. That film had such a visceral impact on me, I watched it – for the first time – far too young I think. So many of the images burned into me, it was, in that sense, something of a horror film. So memorable. Frightening. I’ve returned to it many times since.
Herr also wrote the narration for another classic film – another favourite: Apocalypse Now.
He only wrote a small handful of books, but his collection of celebrity portraits from the golden age is accessible and interesting. And he wrote a decent book about his friend Stanley Kubrick. It falls on over towards hagiography because it was written with the aim of setting straight the record, and therefore comes across as defensive. But Herr knew how to write. That much was obvious.
Even if for just that one book, Dispatches, he’s a writer I greatly admire. He was an important writer to find, to read. And his war writing is some of the smartest, saddest, greatest I’ve ever read.