Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts

T.C. Boyle

Melanie Nguyen 

The Mai Lai Massacre

The Unattainable American Dream in T.C. Boyle’s Novels

On March 16, 1968 a division of American soldiers swarmed the Vietnamese village of Mai Lai killing approximately 500 Vietnamese civilians, including women and children. This horrific carnage is known as the Mai Lai Massacre. The Vietnam War was a war of attrition in which the United States wanted to preserve democracy in South Vietnam by defeating North Vietnamese communist forces and Southern communist rebels. In response to American aggression and in an effort to expel U.S. troops, communist forces in Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, a wave of savage attacks on South Vietnamese civilians and American soldiers in early 1968. After months of brutal attacks, American forces felt exhausted, frustrated, and angry with the high amount of casualties and the shameful American withdrawal. American soldiers were ordered, trained, and prepared to treat their enemy as subhuman. The Mai Lai Massacre resulted in the loss of American innocence, the dehumanization of war, PTSD for soldiers and civilians involved in the Massacre, and a sharp decrease in morale and American support for the Vietnam War.

The disillusionment that American soldiers felt is mirrored in T.C. Boyle’s novels, as he unfolds his pessimistic view of the American Dream by portraying the characters’ consistent feelings of anger, alienation, and violence. In World’s End, Walter isolates himself from society because he struggles to figure out where his father and ancestors have migrated to. Despite having been left behind in isolation, the burden of Walter’s family’s past continues to haunt him. Walter experiences hopelessness as a result, and he resorts to drugs and alcohol in order to escape the dullness of his lonely reality. Ultimately, the characters of Boyle’s works all experience a sense of hopelessness that leads them nowhere in life -- in Walter’s case, he hides from his wife, choosing instead to be with Mardi, his mistress, not viewing her as a faithful companion, but an object there only for his sexual pleasure. As a product of the unattainable American Dream, Walter confines himself to drugs, alcohol, and sex with his mistress because the future doesn’t hold hope for him.

Major Works Consulted:

Allison, William Thomas. My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012.
Boyle, T.C. The Harder They Come. New York: Ecco, 2015.
---. San Miguel. New York: Viking, 2012.
Olson, James S., and Randy Roberts. My Lai: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.
Photo Credit: “T.C. Boyle.” Press Room. University of Southern California, Web. 27 February 2017.