Big Buddha Bicycle Race, The: A Novelby Terence Harkin
Military Writers Society of America Awards – 2020 Silver Medalist in Literary Fiction
Nominated for the 2017 Kirkus Prize
The Big Buddha Bicycle Race transports the reader to upcountry Thailand and war-ravaged Laos late in the Vietnam War. On one level a cross-cultural wartime love story, it is also a surreal remembrance of two groups who have been erased from American history—the brash active-duty soldiers who risked prison by taking part in the GI anti-war movement and the gutsy air commandos who risked death night after night flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Brendan Leary, assigned to an Air Force photo squadron an hour from L.A., has got it made—until the U.S. invades Cambodia and he joins his buddies (and a few thousand Southern California co-eds) who march in protest. First Sergeant Link ships him off to an obscure air base in upcountry Thailand, but even then Brendan figures he’ll be working in an air-conditioned trailer editing combat footage for the 601st Photo Squadron, a useful detour on his way to Hollywood. He expects to return unscathed from what he knows is a screwed-up war, only Brendan is wrong.
The Rat Pack needs cameramen and Leary is soon flying at night over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in a secret air war that turns the mountains of Laos into a napalm-scorched moonscape. He realizes he is trapped, his heart and mind divided between awe at the courage of the warriors he flies with and pity for the convoys of Vietnamese soldiers he sees slaughtered on the ground. As his moral fiber crumbles, he is seduced by a netherworld of drugs, booze…and a strung-out masseuse named Tukada. The Big Buddha Bicycle Race is a last gasp of hope, a project he dreams up that will coincide with Nixon's arrival in China, win hearts and minds in rural Thailand—and make him and his underpaid buddies a pile of money. The start of the race is glorious! Entrants from every Thai and American unit on the base mean big bucks for Leary’s syndicate. Except there’s a problem. Tukada has disappeared and Leary’s sidekick insists her brother is a terrorist...
Praise for The Big Buddha Bicycle Race
“An excellent, thoughtful book about the Vietnam War.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Yes, a ‘real’ book. A love song to SE Asia, sung through the absurd horrors of war.”—Joe Cummings, former editor of Lonely Planet Thailand
“Postmodern and poetic, heartfelt and compassionate, full of sad longing and dawning awareness.”—Jeanne Rosenberg, screenwriter of The Black Stallion and Natty Gann
“This work is a brilliant companion to the most iconic depictions of life in a war zone, including Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Robert Altman’s film M*A*S*H, and Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam.”—Daniel Charles Ross, Military Writers Society of America
“Reading Terence A. Harkin's The Big Buddha Bicycle Race lit up a bunch of my dormant brain cells and flashed me back to the overpowering paradoxes that war provided… In an environment where as Harkin says, "killing and partying seemed to go hand in hand," Spectre was the best and worst of times. Harkin captures the whole experience—and then some.” —Henry Zeybel, Lt. Col. USAF (Retired), author of Gunship and veteran of 158 combat missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail
“Every page arouses a memory, a bitterness, a sweetness, a lament for time lost”—Massimo Morello, Kyoto University Southeast Asia Review
About the Author
Terence Harkin served with the 601st and has returned many times to Thailand and Laos, living in Buddhist monasteries; interviewing Air America crewmen, CIA agents, and Lao soldiers; revisiting old Air Force haunts at Ubon, Udorn, and Nakhon Phanom; and trekking the Ho Chi Minh Trail.