C D B Bryan, "Friendly Fire" Writer, Dies at 73
by Bruce Weber
C. D. B. Bryan, a novelist and journalist whose 1976 book, “Friendly Fire,” about the accidental death of a soldier in Vietnam, the consequent anguish of his family and their rage at the Army and the federal government, became one of the enduring works of reportage on the Vietnam War, died Tuesday at home in Guilford, Conn. He was 73.
The cause was cancer, said his son, St. George Bryan.
Mr. Bryan’s career was that of an old-fashioned man of letters. He wrote both novels and nonfiction books; he taught writing at Colorado State University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop; he contributed articles to many magazines; and he was a voluminous book reviewer, including for The New York Times Book Review, where over the years he assessed works by Tom Wolfe, Richard Ford, Michael Herr, Erica Jong, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William F. Buckley and Julio Cortazar, among others.
But his career was most distinguished by “Friendly Fire,” a book that began as a single magazine article for The New Yorker and was subsequently serialized in several consecutive issues. It was the story of the death of Michael Eugene Mullen, a draftee from LaPorte City, Iowa, who, on Feb. 18, 1970, was killed by shrapnel from an errant artillery shell fired by his fellow troops. His parents, Peg and Gene, doubted the Army’s official account of his death. They were frustrated and aggrieved by the shabby treatment their further inquiries received, and the book traces their path — focusing on Peg Mullen’s life-altering outrage — from quietly patriotic Americans, members of what President Richard M. Nixon called “the silent majority,” to antiwar activists.
“The great war stories do not deal solely with the death of soldiers but with the death of idealism,” Robert Sherrill wrote of “Friendly Fire” in The Times Book Review, “and Bryan’s handling of that theme is certainly the finest that has come out of the Vietnam War.”
Courtlandt Dixon Barnes Bryan, known as Courty, was born in Manhattan on April 22, 1936, and grew up in various locations, but mostly in Doylestown, Pa. His father, Joseph Bryan III, was a magazine writer and editor who had a fascination with unidentified flying objects, a subject C. D. B. Bryan would explore himself in his final book, published in 1995 after an academic symposium that examined claims of alien visitations: “Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind: Alien Abductions, UFOs and the Conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” His parents divorced when he was in his late teens, and his mother, Katharine Lansing Barnes, married the novelist John O’Hara, who was especially influential in turning the young man toward writing fiction.
Young Courty Bryan was educated at several private schools and was thrown out of two of them, one for cheating, an incident central to an early short story, “So Much Unfairness of Things,” which appeared in The New Yorker and grew into his first novel, “P.S. Wilkinson.” It won the Harper Prize, given by the publisher Harper & Row to the finest manuscript turned in by an unknown writer, in 1965.
In spite of his spotty academic career, he was admitted to Yale. After graduation he served in the Army in South Korea in the late 1950s, an unhappy episode that also found its way into the novel.
Mr. Bryan was married four times and divorced three. He is survived by his wife, Mairi Graham Bryan, whom he married in 2007 after they had been together 15 years; a sister, Joan Gates, of Richmond, Va.; two children from his marriage to Phoebe Miller, St. George Bryan, known as Saint, and Lansing Andolina, both of Tacoma, Wash.; a daughter, Amanda Bryan, of Charlotte, N.C., from his marriage to Judith Snyder; two stepchildren, Derek Simonds, of Manhattan, and Tiffany Simonds-Frew, of Guilford, from his marriage to Monique Widmer; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Bryan’s other books include the novels “The Great Dethriffe,” which is set in the 1950s and ’60s and consciously parallels “The Great Gatsby,” and “Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes,” about a middle-aged man’s failed marriages. He also wrote coffee-table books about the National Geographic Society and the National Air and Space Museum.
Mr. Bryan was a smoker, a drinker and an avid and gifted conversationalist who effortlessly commanded the attention of people around a dinner table, his son said. He will be cremated in advance of a memorial service early next year, St. George Bryan added; until then, his remains are to be stored in martini shakers.