"In this book," Richard Chamberlin says, "I'm figuring out who I am." The Monona resident is describing Hitchhiking From Vietnam: Seeking the Ox, his recent memoir about deploying with the Navy Seabees in the mid-1960s, then coming to terms with himself during an epic road trip across the western U.S. 10 years later.
Told in a series of episodes arranged into 32 chapters, the book began as an exercise in self-discovery. "I started writing it as therapy," Chamberlin explains. The oldest of three siblings, he revisited early memories of his childhood home near the Oscar Mayer plant, the family's relocation to Miami, his tours of duty in Vietnam, his return to Madison to find a city convulsed by anti-war sentiment, and his spiritual quest for a sense of himself and his place in the world.
What began as therapy, he reflects, might have value for an audience of his peers who lived through the 1960s, or anyone struggling to find their way through life, but also among veterans returning from the contemporary conflict in Iraq. "I wrote it for myself," he says, "but I also wrote it because I wanted to share some of what I'd learned."
Hitchhiking From Vietnam took more than a decade to finish. "Other things would come up in my life," Chamberlin says. He would write, get discouraged, put away what he had written, then take it out again, revise, write more. By the early 1990s, Madison, Vietnam and hitchhiking across the U.S. had emerged as central themes for the book.
By 1994, he started sending his manuscript to publishers. "Most, I didn't even get replies," he says. Publishers who did respond sent rejection letters containing phrases such as "good, but not quite right for us." He estimates he mailed his manuscript to between 75 and 100 publishers. "What I found was it's extra hard for an unknown writer to get published."
Chamberlin decided to become his own publisher, and established Spinoza Publishing. He pulled the name of his publishing house out of a philosophy reference book. "Spinoza is kind of a pantheist as a philosopher," he explains, "and my book is kind of pantheist."
It is also unflinching in its accounts of Chamberlin's misadventures of the heart and his contentious relationship with his mother, to whom the book is dedicated. One argument in particular is difficult to read. She admonishes him for not pursuing a career in journalism and for quitting his job as an orderly at the old Madison General Hospital so he can embark on his foray out west, and he lashes back. It was a pivotal conversation, he says.
The episode is one of several in which he exposes his most personal feelings. He recounts his first experiences with marijuana and LSD, his awkwardness with prostitutes while serving in Southeast Asia - the sorts of things many people might be too embarrassed to write about for publication.
"I get pretty close to the line sometimes," he acknowledges. "But the essence of memoir is to write something you might be uncomfortable with so the reader can relate better."
Some of the book's most vivid passages are from Chamberlin's time in Vietnam, where he was assigned to storekeeper duty. The job afforded him a perspective from which to observe the mundane but telling details of life on a base that felt buffered from the nearest front: the oppressive heat and humidity, rivulets of perspiration, hungry civilians scavenging for discarded food, the innocent faces of orphans, the sight of Navy jets diving "from the clouds like hawks" to drop napalm on enemy positions in distant hills, torrential monsoon rains, rotting supplies, the adrenaline of sirens that prove to be false alarms and others that signal a harrowing mortar attack.
This acute attention to detail may derive from Chamberlin's background in journalism, which he studied at a junior college in Miami and at the University of Missouri before taking his degree from Chicago's Columbia College. He was a reporter at a small newspaper in Indiana, and has since freelanced.
This training might also account for his writing style. "I try to make it as simple and accessible as I possibly can," Chamberlin says. "I use Hemingway as an example, because Hemingway to me is the epitome. A lot of my writing is going through it and cutting and cutting it down."
Chamberlin is a longtime driver for Union Cab. His memoir is part of a writing outbreak that hit the company last year: Union Cab stalwarts Allen Ruff and Fred Schepartz published their respective novels, Save Me Julie Kogon and Vampire Cabbie, in 2007. Now Chamberlin, too, is working on a novel. "I've got 20 chapters roughed out," he says. "I want to be finished in about a year and a half."
Meanwhile, he hopes people will keep reading his memoir. "I'd like people in the future to look back at my book," he says, "and say, 'Oh yeah, that's the way it really was.'"