Vietnam veteran journeys in and out of darkness

February 07, 1993|By Marc Leepson


Wayne Karlin.

Henry Holt.

` 215 pages. $22.50.

Wayne Karlin is one of the most literarily accomplished Vietnam veterans. A former Marine helicopter crewman, he has written four novels and a book of short stories. He makes his living teaching literature at Charles County Community College and at the University of Massachusetts' William Joiner Center.

Mr. Karlin's Vietnam-heavy "Lost Armies" (1988), which is set in a fictionalized Eastern Shore town, is an underappreciated gem. Among its other qualities, "Lost Armies" is one of the very few pieces of fiction that deals with Vietnam veterans' psychological problems without sensationalizing the issue or stereotyping the troubled vet.

In "Lost Armies," Mr. Karlin showed off a distinctive, biting writing style. He filled the novel with complex, hard-to-classify characters, and did equally well evoking the watery Eastern Shore landscape and the emotional landscapes of his characters' psyches.

He followed in 1989 with "The Extras," a murky, politically infused tale set in Israel in the 1970s. In "Us," his latest novel, Mr. Karlin returns to confronting the continuing legacy of Vietnam. While the new book does not measure up to the exceptional "Lost Armies," it remains a serious, ambitious and creative literary effort, and is very much worth reading.

The main plot revolves around former Army Staff Sgt. Jacob Loman, an expatriate Vietnam veteran who runs a tourist-trap bar in Bangkok, Thailand. Three of the bar's regulars are fellow veterans, men "who lived in the shadows, stuck in a Twilight Zone curse of endless R&R," as Mr. Karlin nicely puts it -- men who sit "around like permanent adolescents telling war and [sex] stories."

Loman -- one assumes Mr. Karlin purposely chose the name of the famous fictional salesman -- has a shady past, and isn't exactly a solid citizen of present-day Bangkok.

So it's no surprise when a series of bizarre events compels him to make an ill-advised trip to the mountains of northern Burma, the center of the world's illicit opium trafficking. Loman's "Heart of Darkness"-like journey into the infamous Golden Triangle involves American MIAs, heroin smuggling, indigenous armies, the CIA and a lot of the old ultraviolence.

It's to Mr. Karlin's immense credit that he takes these overused plot elements and stitches them together capably and credibly. The story moves along swiftly, and the novel's potential stock characters -- especially a duplicitous CIA man, a self-aggrandizing congressman and Loman himself -- are extremely well drawn and believable.

As he did in "Lost Armies," Mr. Karlin shows off his knowledge of Southeast Asian culture. In the earlier book, he dealt with Vietnamese culture and language; this time we get a good deal about Thai and Burmese folklore, including many legends and mystical beliefs. Mr. Karlin also mixes in strong evocations of Bangkok street life and the natural wonders of the jungles and hills of the Triangle of Gold.

In "Us," he takes Loman through hell and back. Along the way, Loman learns something about himself, about the fate of Americans still missing in Laos, about the Burmese pro-democracy movement and the international drug trade. It's a very convoluted, dangerous journey, one that makes for gripping reading.

Mr. Leepson is book editor of the Veteran magazine.

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