Mark Frechette, movie actor and bank robber, believed in astrology. His interest in it started before he joined an astrology-obsessed commune, based in the Fort Hill district of Boston, that called itself the Fort Hill Community and eventually answered to “the Lyman Family.” Like all cults, they denied being a cult, despite being led by a despot who proclaimed himself the Second Coming and was tagged the “East Coast Charles Manson” by Rolling Stone magazine in a 60,000-word exposé that appalled his apostles. Here’s how they characterized themselves in a pamphlet published in 1973, the same year Mark Frechette botched a bank heist and feathered a reputation already tarred by Rolling Stone: “We are a group of people between the ages of 16 and 30 who have been experimenting with communal living for seven years now and have come up with some amazing results which we would like to share with you.” The pamphlet advertised the courses they offered to the heathen, including two in astrology: “By studying your own chart, you will learn to make astrology work for you in your relationships with other people by a greater understanding of them, an understanding to which there are no limits.” Mark Frechette would certainly have studied his own chart, but whatever understanding he gained from it, he was captured and died cryptically in prison. His FBI file includes a photocopy of the Lyman Family pamphlet.

Viet_Thanh_Nguyen_The_Sympathizer

The guest on the latest episode of the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast is Viet Thanh Nguyen . His debut novel, The Sympathizer, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. It is available now from Grove Press.

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Patchouli Morning

The metaphysical impishness, erudition and breadth of vision in this sexually charged roman à clef is Smith at his most vulnerable. We recoil in horror as he recounts a series of heartbreaking trysts that recall — then exceed — Flaubert in both emotional power and literary merit. Curiously, the novel stagnates for the first twenty pages with inane references to pedestrian, adolescent love themes directed toward a sophomore called only “Emily,” but it then soars for the remaining 344 pages with a narrative and vision as taut and authentic as anything in the Western canon since forever. And while the inclusion of the lyrics to Metallica’s “Fade to Black” in the prologue offers little in the way of relevance, one is reminded that — like black holes — not everything should be easily understood.

Lachrymose in Transylvania

Intoxicating, tantalizing, always potentially violent, this captivating tome helps define not just the current state of Inuit America, but the world at large. It is a book so erudite and well wrought that its aura somehow illuminates the rest of Smith’s oeuvre, sustaining his post-apocalyptic vision. And although Smith asks a lot of his readers (would Dracula really show up for the soap-box derby, uninvited?), we are rewarded for our efforts later in this tour de force when it becomes clear everything has been a dream — but not in that hokey, St. Elsewhere way — in that way that only Smith, at the height of his creative powers, can manufacture so convincingly.

Da Nang Disco

Can anyone write about the horrors of the Vietnam War like Smith? Maybe Tim O’Brien, but does O’Brien dare to set his narrative against the backdrop of a colonial discotheque struggling to keep the party going during the Tet Offensive? No. Smith weaves his flawless prose seamlessly through the trenches and pop hits of 1968 Vietnam while exposing the artifice and shady underbelly that was the 2001 Little League World Series. The daring cadenza that begins the novel is, as often seems to be the case with Smith’s first chapters, categorically unreadable — but not in the sense that they are ill-conceived or poorly written — they are simply too much to bear, like much of Joyce. The Emily character makes a dramatic entrance, screams, then leaves the novel for good. Again. It’s so haunting! Maybe I should just come clean here and admit that I am not smart enough to comprehend what Smith is getting at, usually.

Toggle & Yaw

Just when you get the feeling that Smith may nave reached the limits of his vast fecundity, he treats us to a space novel like no other. To call Toggle & Yaw a “space novel,” though, is tantamount to calling The Bible a “sand novel.” The book begins quite predictably with a string of complaints (as is becoming Smith’s modus operandi) related to a character named “Emily,” who appears quite substantially in earlier chapters then disappears without a whimper. What are we to think of this “Emily?” Who really cares, when, later in the novel, Toggle (a Type A cosmonaut from the future) explains to Yaw (a robot/fire hydrant with a history of drug abuse), “Thy sample science programs, like deep surveys and slitless grism spectroscopy of exo-planet transit, will compromise ye olde mission’s capabilities in near-infrared, m’lady. Anon.” Can you think of another writer who can meld flawless Victorian patois with deep-space discourse like Smith? This reviewer cannot.

The Rending

If it can be said of any writer living today that he/she has fused lyric virtuosity with a kind childlike aplomb, that writer must be Mr. Smith. The Rending begins with the tale of a particularly devastating train accident, I think. Of course, Smith knows that, in fiction, it’s often what’s “not there” that lends to the visceral beauty inherent in certain exchanges and turns of phrase. Indeed, The Rending, Smith’s fifth and finest book thus far, is an artistic blitzkrieg on literary expectation and norms, as the novel, coming in at just under 600 pages, features not a single word. If Kafka, Proust, McCullers and Nabokov pooled their best work and created a kind of “Dream Team” book, one wonders whether the ensuing scribbles could even be put up for consideration next to Smith’s magnum opus. The culminate car-chase through the byzantine streets of Caligula’s Rome recalls I, Claudius, with lasers. Not-to-be-perused.

Emily

On first read, one wonders whether Mr. Smith actually typed the word “Emily” 2,011,740 times, or if he in fact used the “cut-and-paste” option on his PC. Either way, this paean to lost love compels the reader to ask: “Is this The Great American Novel?” or perhaps, “What’s your return policy?”

We were at Leo’s Burgers. Alex Raffio stuffed his face. His mouth looked like Pacman with an Italian moustache right before he bit down. “Oh I have secrets,” he said with his mouth half full. He chewed on his burger like he knew what it was really like to be hungry.

“Whatever, Alex.” I said. “You’re always saying you have secrets.”

“Don’t believe me?”

A. was there too. She had big green eyes, dark skin, long light brown hair. She could talk a gorilla into being a tightrope walker. She was good. And he was lusting after her. We both were. He didn’t know it but I had the upper hand. I rescued her one day from the university library. He was her tutor and rattling on about loyalists, the American Revolution. That sort of thing. Long-windedness was his norm. The man had lungs. A book summary critique for him in the CSU graduate program was a 45-page treatise. She looked off in the distance. His moustache bristled. His stubby hands articulated as if he had been a pamphleteer or a loyalist preacher. I sat at the table and sparked a conversation. There was a sigh of relief. Next thing I knew A. was staying over every night.

Raffio took another bite of his burger. 

“Alex. If you have secrets, then you’re going to have to share,” A. said. “You can’t just tease us. If you’re going to do that then don’t say anything at all.” She wore dark lipstick and ate fried zucchini like each one was a little Raffio wiener. Bad girl. She knew what she was doing with those lips.

Raffio was shorter than me. And that’s shorter than five-and-a-half feet. I looked over at him. “You look like a bald Yosemite Sam when you keep secrets,” I said. He really did seem that way. He was stalky. An Italian bulldog. He had that angry look, like any second he would explode with guns a blazin’.

He didn’t care what I said. It was all about A. She had him at a happy moment. He was eating. He was sitting next to her. He’d told me he wanted to get laid by her. I didn’t tell him I already had. Maybe he had too come to think of it.

Her voice softened. “Come on. Who are we going to tell?”

His eyes shifted. His jaw tightened as he chewed harder.

It was 1995. I was still in my twenties. A. was barely twenty-one. We didn’t fit the mold of CIA moles. Yet he was worried as hell. Paranoid. It was beyond the kind of paranoia that you and I probably know. He probably thought the zucchini was bugged.

People had to use secret knocks at his apartment door to even get him to acknowledge there was a knock. My classmate Tony said that when he brought Raffio school documents, he had to slide them under his door. He would yell from inside: “Just slide the goddam thing!”

He thought people were after him. And not just any people. CIA. The ex-military sort. The kind who had people assassinated sort. The kind who ripped out hearts in jungle wars sort, and who funded jihadists and had ties to the biggest secrets ever in the history of U.S. secrets.

Alex Raffio. Certifiable. A student of history. Afraid of his own shadow. Nuts, right?

Right.

It was sometime around the Leo’s Burger conversation that Alex had started talking about his life. Just bits. Pieces really. All of it mysterious.

He made whopping claims. The sort that you shrugged, disbelieved and went back to your video game. Sonic the Hedgehog was way more believable than anything that spilled out of the pacmania chompchomp of Alex Raffio.

“I co-authored a book. I was on the ‘Today Show.’ I was in Vietnam. I was paramilitary. Do you know what cluster fuck means? We were dropped way behind enemy lines. We weren’t supposed to be there. Laos. Cambodia. Recon. Intelligence. Drugs. Torture. Assassination. And then the cluster fuck went down.”

Abandonment? Heart of darkness? Colonel Kurtz? You mean that Martin Sheen shit? Apocalypse fucking Now?

Nuts.

That was a typical Alex Raffio conversation when he spoke of his estranged past. “I wrote a goddam book,” he bristled. I swear steam came out his ears. Raffio was off his rocker.

I should note that Alex Raffio wasn’t his real name. He claimed it had been changed. He really claimed people were after him. CIA. Mercenaries. Maybe even the Libyans. You name it. In fact, I didn’t change his name for this story. If it’s not his real name, then why worry? Right?

Right.

Alex Raffio doesn’t exist.

Raffio kept talking about a Vietnam cluster fuck. THE Vietnam cluster fuck. He said the words so much that I had to start laughing. And why not? Alex was a bumbling sort of guy. How could I picture him as special forces with HALO parachutists (not the video game), but the high altitude, low flying ODA team paramilitary forces who parachuted into enemy territory during Vietnam with the likes of Sgt. Major Billy Waugh.

Waugh once expected a few NVA while he was far behind enemy lines. But there were more. He had to play dead after being severely injured as 4,000 Chinese troops descended on his ass. He lived to tell the tale. Google him and pray he doesn’t slit your throat just for looking up information.

You might as well give him a CIA tattoo. Because that’s what Waugh did after he retired in 1972. OK, after a short stint with the U.S. Post Office (Post Office, really? Why? How?) In the mid-1970s he got dumped into the Libya mess. The Soviets were tied to Libya. The U.S. wanted to fuck it all up. Arms deals. Possible death deals. Surveillance. Mostly under Edwin P. Wilson.

Here’s where it gets sticky.

Wilson set up front companies under the guidance of the CIA. You know, fake puppet companies for covert operations in Libya? That kind. He called his companies Consultants International and raked in the millions. He had been with the CIA since retiring from the Marines in 1956. But in 1971, Wilson jumped ship to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) to build his fake companies.

In fact, according to a page out of the “Toledo Blade” which you can google for yourself, our sticky-fingered spook, Wilson, was part of the Navy’s supersecret Task Force 157. And like I said, pocketing millions. What about the $70,000 for that Russian mine? He never bought it and lost the money. What about the $9-million socks that were ordered and paid for in full by the Iranians? He delivered 100,000 socks and kept the difference.

Sorry about that.

But there’s more bad news. Wilson sold $6 parts for $250. He made millions off the Libyans and Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was not happy about it at all. The Libyans did use Wilson’s funds to train the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine under the leadership of Ahmed Jibril. He’s an ex-Syrian Army officer and suspected of being behind the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. According to some, that’s a conspiracy theory. Either way, the BBC said in 2002, accusations against Jibril were dropped by courts after Syria joined the alliance to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Interesting coincidence. The BBC also said Jibril launched the first suicide attacks in Israel in the 1970s. Three men blew themselves up near Kiryat Shmona. Eighteen people died.

Thanks Wilson.

The truth started coming out before Leo’s Burgers. Before THAT conversation. I was sitting in a meeting I shouldn’t have been sitting in. A professor—an ex-Air Force intelligence officer who spoke and wrote fluent Chinese, was talking to another history professor. I was in the room. By the looks thrown around, we had all thought Raffio was full of shit.

“Raffio checks out. He did write a book,” the professor said.

Apparently, Raffio, along with Joseph C. Goulden, had co-written “The Death Merchant. The Rise and Fall of Edwin P. Wilson.”

In fact, Philip Taubman had written in a 1984 New York Times article titled, “Books of The Times; Intrigue at the C.I.A.” that Raffio had testified against another ex-CIA guy, Edwin P. Wilson. Notice, Taubman said “another CIA guy” indicating Raffio was CIA at one point.

As a result, the article states Raffio was presented with a new identity by the Justice Department.

Yes, that Raffio. The Leo’s Burgers Raffio. The Italian Pacman.

Wilson was convicted. He had taken millions in government monies and invested them in arms, explosives and military equipment that he had shipped to Libya.

How did they catch Wilson? He was tricked into flying to another country because, to no big surprise, he thought the Libyans were going to have him killed if he stayed in Libya.

No shit.

It’s unknown if Raffio was in on that. The rat that caught the mole.

And it doesn’t stop there. Wilson really had it coming when he tried to have Raffio, along with a host of others, killed while on trial for illegally selling arms to Libya. According to the New York Times, Wilson had plotted “unsuccessfully, to kill Federal prosecutors, his former associates and his former wife.” Wilson’s third conviction was for trying to kill Raffio and others.

So Raffio was right. He was paranoid for good reason. Wilson’s associates could still be lurking. Revenge killings weren’t unheard of in Libya or the good old U.S. of A.

You don’t have to go far to find other Raffio ties. The CIA cluster fuck in Libya actually trailed the Vietnam cluster fuck that took place behind enemy lines.

When Raffio spoke, he always spoke of Vietnam first. The look on his face made the Libyans look like child’s play. Cold War vs. the Vietnam War? You choose. Raffio was pompous and scared all at once. At least that was my interpretation. And why not be pompous? He lived to beat death at every corner. He kicked death in the nuts.

He said that U.S. paramilitary forces in Vietnam that fought the secret war all parachuted in together. He said they went into various countries.

One can only imagine the kind of people who could make up an American special forces unit in the geographical side and back alleys of Vietnam: smart, brave, cunning, genius, terrible. You know, the ones who crossed borders.

An Internet document from the Christic Institute in Malibu, Calif., links Raffio to Anthony Poshepny. Just a name right? Like Wilson, you’d have to read books upon books to really get who the kind of people were that Raffio had consorted with, and hid from.

Poshepny was special. He happened to be the man the “Apocalypse Now” character Colonel Kurtz may have been based on.

Poshepny, Raffio, Wilson, Waugh. All four names and just a few dozens of others turn up on a grid of secret U.S. war history of the 1960s and 1970s.

In this case, it was the CIA’s secret war in Laos.

Poshepny was born in 1924. He’d seen action on Iwo Jima where he was injured. In 1958 he helped try to overthrow the government of Indonesia. In 1959 he helped organized the escape of the Dalai Lama. During the Vietnam years, like the Marlon Brando character, he was the older guy, the CIA cowboy. The shitkicker of the jungle. As early as 1961, Poshepny worked alongside General Vang Pao. He even married the niece of a prominent Hmong leader.

In my brief exploration of Poshepny, his background becomes muddy, but then he gets back with the U.S. secret war, Wilson, and most likely, Raffio. This is the cluster fuck of the mid 1960s secret CIA drug trade in Laos and in the back-end war that explodes into the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

During these years the elder statesman of secret military operations was brutal to his enemies. One Internet source claims Poshepny later admitted to collecting enemy ears, dropping human heads from the air on enemies and sticking heads on spikes. He fought terror bloodily against North Vietnamese troops who sought to invade ethnic Hmong and Lao lands. He sought to empower villagers and tribesman as their leader, a god-like Kurtz if you will, who would rally a terrible jungle war of Medieval proportions.

And yes, he was terrible. According to Roger Warner in the book “Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos,” Poshepny said, “I used to collect ears … I had a big, green, reinforced cellophane bag as you walked up my steps … I still collected them, until … I saw this little Lao kid out there, he’s only about 12, and he had no ears. And I asked: ‘What the hell happened to this guy?’ Somebody said, ‘Tony, he heard you were paying for ears. His daddy cut his ears off…”’

After retiring in 1975, Poshepny lived in Thailand another fifteen years. He died in 2003.

Raffio took another gargantuan bite of his burger. He chewed. His eyes shifted around, landing on A. “Secrets huh?” he said.

She pouted.

“I was in the CIA.”

“You already told us that,” A. laughed.

“I had clearance. I could go anywhere.”

“What do you mean go anywhere?” I said.

“Anywhere.”

“Like where?”

“Secret places.”

“Whatever, Alex,” A. said, goading him for more.

He looked at her like she should pay up if he accepted the challenge. “Area 51. I’ve been there,” he said.

A. and I laughed. We were hysterical.

He was pissed. He could tell we didn’t believe shit.

He ate a handful of fries. His lips were greasy. “You don’t have to believe me. But I was there.”

“Why were you there?” A. said.

“I was passing through, alright? Jesus!”

“Lighten up, Alex. What did you see?” I said.

“I saw this metal. I got to touch it. It was tougher than steel. But I could move it around in my hands like it was some kind of foil. It wasn’t from here.”

“Spaceships?” A. said.

He got a look on his face like we were fucking morons.

“Spaceships? Did you see spaceships?” A. said.

“I saw things.”

“Right, Alex,” I said.

“I believe you,” A. said.

He took his last bite and started shoving fries in his mouth. The room smelled like salt and grease. His eyes shifted and A. smiled.

I confronted eschatology too young. Although benign compared to some beliefs, my Catholic upbringing placed me at the sidelines of Armageddon—strange references to a kingdom come, the Second Coming, Judgment Day. I got queasy at the mention of the Book of Revelations. Sermons and syntactically-strained Bible readings led me to infer a tremendous destructive end to all life, human, animal, insect, plant. There were drawings in books, filled with fire, angels and demons, a sea of the damned. For a child, it’s impossible to reconcile a loving Father with one who will kill every one of his children with wanton violence. Children also don’t grasp metaphor.