Bringing the field to us: superb novel about Vietnam; Meditations in Green, by Stephen Wright. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 342 pp. $14.95.
It has been called ''possibly the best story yet to come out of the Vietnam war.'' It has had an impressive paperback sale and will be featured as a Book-of-the-Month-Club Alternate selection. And it is winner of the 1983 Maxwell Perkins Prize - awarded annually by Charles Scribner's Sons to ''a first novel of exceptional promise about the American experience.''
The publicity is unusual for two reasons; first, because ''Meditations in Green'' is a first novel; second, because it is about Vietnam.
Indeed, there is a resurgence in the literature of the Vietnam war. Robert Stone's ''Dog Soldiers,'' published in 1974, was probably the first novel about the war to be both critically acclaimed and a popular success. But with the exception of Ron Kovic's ''Born on the Fourth of July,'' ''A Rumor of War,'' by Philip Caputo, and, more recently, ''The 13th Valley,'' by John Del Vecchio, the literature of Vietnam is still relatively unknown, even though some 116 novels appeared between 1965 and 1981, according to John Newman, author of a recently published annotated bibliography, ''Vietnam War Literature.''
This fall alone four Vietnam novels, four histories, and two biographies will make their appearance, and no doubt other works are in progress. Vietnam, it seems, has reentered the national consciousness. It has even made its way back into our living rooms, this time not on the news, but courtesy of PBS in ''Vietnam: A Television History.''
''Meditations in Green'' is of particular interest not because of its plot, of which there is little, but because of its form and the way it reflects the author's attitude toward the war. ''This is not a settled life,'' the protagonist, Spec. 4 James Griffin, observes early on, and the structure of the novel tells us as much. If ''The Naked and the Dead'' was concerned with the upholding of discipline in the face of adversity, ''Meditations in Green'' is about the breakdown of order, the loss of control, the deterioration of character. Its multiple perspectives convey the fragmentation of experience, the shattering effects of war. Catastrophe, Wright impresses on us, lacks coherence.
It is really three stories in one. Wright precedes each chapter with a ''meditation,'' recalling Hemingway's technique in ''In Our Time.'' Told from the point of view of Griffin, a disabled vet strung out on dope, they are reflections on plant life that lead into Griffin's recollections of Army life, which in turn help explain his present predicament. The horrors of war are thus seen in vivid contrast to the life cycle of a plant, which must nevertheless survive the hazards - both natural and artificial - of the environment.
In the Army Griffin is assigned to the 1069th Military Intelligence Group. His unit is charged with locating the Fifth NVA Regiment, which is nowhere to be found. Griffin himself is an ''image interpreter,'' whose job is to read aerial photographs to locate enemy positions. ''Wherever he put circles on the film there the Air Force would make holes in the ground,'' Wright says in a simple, forceful prose style that derives much of its effect through understatement. Griffin is later transferred to herbicide studies. The boredom of camp life is relieved by drugs (''We bring the field to us,'' declares Trips, Griffin's acid-freak friend), alcohol, and random bursts of violence. Scenes of grisly realism puncture Wright's impressionistic canvas. The commanding officer is killed in a freak plane crash; a soldier knifes his own first sergeant; a downed helicopter is discovered, its passengers and crew strung up by their necks and dismembered by the Viet Cong. Prisoners are tortured, civilians murdered, villages wiped out at the wave of a hand. Griffin sits out his duty until the moment he has been waiting for arrives: Wounded under enemy attack, he can at last go home. The rest of his outfit goes up in a cloud of ''fire and smoke.''
The meaninglessness of the United States mission, the arbitrariness of chance , provoke savage laughter among Wright's characters. ''It's all a grotesque hoax ,'' Trips claims, ''concocted for economic purposes. There is no war, there is no Vietnam.'' In a touch worthy of ''Catch-22,'' one soldier stages his private battles for a home movie; another observes the action from a guard tower as if he were watching such a movie. But the humor conceals fear; Wright's sarcasm resounds with a seriousness of intent. ''Has anyone ever bothered adding up those numbers?'' one ''grunt'' asks after hearing the official casualty figures. ''We must have wiped out the entire population of North Vietnam at least twice over by now.''
Griffin escapes with only a leg injury, but the real damage is psychic. ''Meditations in Green'' is as much about the war as it is about its traumatic aftereffects. ''I was a bad seed,'' Griffin believes. To cope with the pain, to forget the past, he turns to drugs. He learns how to meditate, and he also turns to gardening full time, cultivating life, not destroying it as he did in the war. Trips is not so lucky. Harboring an old grudge against his sergeant, he is driven to the brink of murder.
Griffin's ''Meditations in Green'' lends coherence to his wartime experience, but the organic metaphor is at first misleading. Man seems to be too much an instrument of fate, a pawn at the hands of nature, as if he were neither responsible for, nor the the victim of, his own actions.
But that is precisely the author's point. Wright, who served in Vietnam from December 1969 until November 1970, explains that ''Most of the time, people in the novel are pretending to do something, which was the sense we had over there. We thought no matter what you did or had acomplished, what did it matter in the end?'' The structure of ''Meditations in Green'' may at times be disconcerting, and Wright, like many first novelists, can be seen straining after effect. But it is this consciousness of Vietnam as an abstraction, the recognition of US policy there as stagecraft, that makes his work such an important - and disturbing - contribution to the literature of the war.