Ward Just's 'Friend' -- Vietnam, freshly

May 09, 1999|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

"A Dangerous Friend," by Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin. 272 pages. $23.

Ward Just is frequently heralded as one of our most underrated novelists. His fiction takes artful measure of the moral economy of a life in American politics during the last half of the 20th century. Most of his novels and stories, such as the National Book Award finalist "Echo House" (1997), play out in a closely observed but sensually arid Washington, D.C., where careers are mistaken for lives and ambition trumps emotion.

In "A Dangerous Friend," Just leaves behind the Beltway for South Vietnam, where he worked as a reporter during the Johnson administration, and set his first two novels "A Soldier of the Revolution" (1970) and "Stringer" (1974). The rich setting arrests the senses, and enlivens Just's staid prose without compromising its elegance. From a plane approaching Saigon, one character notices how "beneath the green fields, water glittered like a spray of diamonds. He thought of veins under the skin."

The novel follows the principals of the civilian Llewellyn Group into Indochina in 1965, when the U. S. war was escalating but still seemed manageable. Foreign service veteran Dicky Rostok and his staff come to promote "nation building": to build roads, distribute medicine and the like. More ambiguously, they are to provide "research and rapid reaction when the usual channels broke down."

The thirtyish political scientist Sydney Parade leaves behind a job and a family to contribute to what Llewellyn and other civilian groups in Saigon call The Effort. He wishes to serve the interests of democracy and, more vaguely, "to be part of the life of my time."

A bit of a cold fish, Sydney Parade is an appropriate guide through this saga of disillusionment. His illusions are numerous, often admirable, and ripe for the plucking.

Sydney's value to the Llewellyn Group includes his youthful idealism but turns on his family connection with the leftover French colonial Claude Armand and his American-born wife. The Armands continue to run a rubber plantation in the Xuan Loc district and remain on good terms with the Vietnamese -- pegging them as one more stone for American intelligence to turn over.

The action in "A Dangerous Friend" is terse and effective, a few key dramatic events punctuating the nuanced, ubiquitous talk. Just is an artisan of plot as well as of voice. He knows precisely how much incident will suffice to illuminate the way things work in a country crowded with national, political and personal allegiances and agendas, where friendship means side-taking and danger always attends it.

The gripping denouement makes terrible, perfect sense. The war machine has effortlessly snapped up Rostok's careerism for its own purposes, and only slightly less easily commandeers Sydney's optimism and the Armands' common decency, which applies even to human beings engaged in a military effort they despise.

Just's writing has invited comparison with the likes of Henry James. It is cerebral yet readable, richly layered but smoothly lain down. Vietnam is well-traveled fictional ground, but "A Dangerous Friend" comes to it from a fresh perspective and with uncommon literary gifts.

Laura Demanski is a doctoral candidate, specializing in 19th-century fiction. She has worked for Simon & Schuster and the University of Chicago Press.

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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