Like a lot of people, I'm sure, the news out of Cambodia that the remains of Sean Flynn might have been found stirred in me the odd feeling of being reminded of a very good friend, an intimate partner in untold late-night revelries and bull sessions, who I happened never to have met.
Some books are so amazing, so indelibly imagined and written, that reading them gives us a powerful sensation of living their highs and lows, frustrations, freak-outs and frenzies, right along with the author.
Michael Herr' s Dispatches -- probably my favorite American nonfiction book -- was like this. Anyone who has read it can be forgiven for having the feeling that Sean Flynn was not just Herr's friend, but their friend, too.
I had been waiting since 1984 to read the book, and when you wait that long, you want the reading to be memorable. Mine was. I picked up a copy last month at the former Hanoi Hilton, one-time internment location of John McCain and many other American POWs, now a museum devoted to the memory of the French colonialist mistreatment of the Vietnamese.
I started the book in Hanoi, and continued reading it in Da Nang, Hue and Saigon (the map may have said "Ho Chi Minh City" but I was in "Saigon," so thoroughly had Herr's brilliant musings and observations transported me to his world). Herr covered the Vietnam War for Esquire Magazine, writing what he wanted when he wanted but with plenty of time to go hang out with grunts in the trenches and tune in to their language, and to me the book evokes Hell's Angels-era Hunter Thompson, only one notch better.
To anyone who has thought of reading the book, but never quite made the time, I'll repeat what many others have said: Read it!
One of the odder surprises was the tender, yet openly astonished portrayal of Sean Flynn:
"Sean Flynn could look more incredibly beautiful than even his father, Errol, had thirty years before as Captain Blood, but sometimes he looked more like Artaud coming out of some heavy heart-of-darkness trip, overloaded on the information, the input," Herr writes. "The input! He'd give off a bad sweat and sit for hours, combing his mustache through with the saw blade of his Swiss Army knife."
I could quote this stuff forever. OK, a little more from the same dispatch:
"We packed grass and tape: Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing in the Shadows, Best of the Animals, Strange Days, Purple Haze, Archie Bell and the Drells."
We will wait for the DNA tests for resolution of the mystery of what became of Sean Flynn, a war photographer who may really have earned the sobriquet "swashbuckling." But his memory will always be kept alive in a great book by Michael Herr.