From his 16-month stay in Vietnam at the birth of America's involvement there, Philip Caputo received two gifts: impressions that would serve to form his captivating and best-selling 1977 memoir A Rumor of War (Niagara), and a uneasy sensation that he had somehow become an outsider, no longer a part of the great optimistic American middle, a group whose membership he once took for his birthright.
"Had I not gone to Vietnam, I probably would have become some sort of writer anyhow, but it would have very much been in a minor key," Caputo, 59, now says. "Not only did Vietnam provide a good scene for me to work with, but it did something for me personally which I think has to happen eventually for any writer. It forced me to look outside my society and culture. To view life as an outsider. You almost need to, if you will, to be alienated from the accepted way of looking at things if you want to write well."
Caputo visits New Orleans to speak before a class and a panel at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, as well as to give a lecture in honor of the late New Orleans investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour. In both forums he will talk about the meaning and mission of writing, a topic that is his naturally to explore.
Caputo's roots as a writer stretch back to his days writing for the Chicago Tribune -- his work on that paper won him a Pulitzer Prize in l972. Five years later he wrote his first novel. Caputo is quick to point out the parallels between the pursuits of fiction and journalism. Pulling together the stray bits and pieces of a good newspaper story, Caputo says, is very much like the process that goes into building a strong novel.
Yet he adds that the novels that are inspired by today's journalism bear scant resemblance to the literary muckrakings of writers like John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck in the l930s. "I miss the kind of novels that were both first-class works of fiction as well as books with a real social conscience," Caputo says.
Caputo, however, easily reigns within that hallowed tradition. A Rumor of War describes the dark descent of the first combat unit sent to Vietnam during the early optimistic days of that conflict in l965 when most everyone simply assumed the Americans would finish off the Communist North Vietnamese in a matter of months. Horn of Africa, published in l980, portrays a thriving and lunatic gun-running enterprise in Africa, during a time when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were very much involved in nearly every neighborhood dispute there. Means of Escape (Harper Collins), 1991, recounts Caputo's Midwest boyhood, his service as a Marine and his stark days in captivity as a hostage in Beirut in l973.
Caputo is currently completing his ninth book, which he describes as a "very large-scale project set in modern-day Kenya and centered on two Americans who are involved in an effort to aid the black Sudanese." Once again, his work will marry the misty recesses of imagination with the unforgiving black-and-white of reality.
For a writer who has so comfortably and skillfully blended fiction with fact, Caputo today admits he is generally critical of the tone of American journalism, particularly investigative journalism, which will be the topic of his Ridenhour lecture. "I think investigative journalism, in the Upton Sinclair tradition, reached perhaps its height in the late l960s up through Watergate," Caputo says. "To me the turning point came sometime in the late l980s, particularly with the massive coverage of Gary Hart's sexual peccadilloes."
Caputo now finds irony in the fact that The National Enquirer, perhaps the nation's arbiter of rumor and gossip, has been in the forefront of the investigation of former President Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. And that story, Caputo says, is indeed a legitimate story. "It's much more in the tradition of serious investigative reporting," he says.
Could The National Enquirer, then -- the same paper that has so often led the nation's press in its endless revelations of sex, stars, and scandal -- become a model to follow for traditional investigative journalism? Caputo admits that may be asking for too much. Nevertheless he adds "we have reached the saturation point with scandal-oriented journalism. At least I hope so. The traditional investigative journalist has more of an important role to play today than ever before."