A DANGEROUS FRIEND by Ward Just Houghton Mifflin 256 pp., $25
Ward Just knows why we were in Vietnam. The author was there as a reporter for The Washington Post. Traveling with the 101st Airborne in 1966, he was badly wounded by an enemy grenade and sent home. And into fiction.
He realized that reporting the facts couldn't contain the tragedy of Vietnam. The reasons for America's involvement were too contradictory, the players too diverse, the results too amorphous. That decision finished his reporting days, but led to a dozen carefully written political novels - several, like this one, set in Vietnam.
As though anticipating a flashy movie version, the publisher claims that "A Dangerous Friend" is a "large-canvas novel of Saigon,... a thrilling narrative roiling with intrigue, mayhem, and betrayal."
On the contrary, what's striking about this book is its restraint, its precise focus on "a bit player" in a minor incident during the war's earliest days. Like Hemingway, Just suggests complex motives and regrets by focusing on a few well-chosen details, that tip of the iceberg above a sea of emotions. The canvas here is minute, but the image of moral ambiguity is perfectly drawn and full of instruction for America's current efforts abroad.
The novel's antihero, Sidney Parade, has lived a life in sepia tones. After his passionate wife and young daughter leave him, he realizes "he had let one opportunity after another slip by," and though he has never traveled outside the US, he is "determined to seize South Vietnam."
He falls in with a vaguely defined relief organization designed to promote economic development and democratic institutions. "Nation-building was the velvet glove that complemented the army's iron fist," Sidney brags, "and everyone knew that the war would be won or lost by the caress of the glove."
Considering the $2 billion Congress appropriated for roads, schools, and clinics, Sidney can almost believe their optimistic plans to transform South Vietnam into an Asian California. "Then the population would rally to the Saigon administration," he hopes. "The Communists would be licked."
He arrives in Vietnam to find an office trashed by his drunken predecessor. The organization desperately needs Sidney's civility and decorum. And their cause requires his determination to construct a coherent and encouraging report for Congress.
His ambitious director warns him, "You need ambiguity in your heart," but Sidney is too caught up in his own propaganda to anticipate the dilemmas that lie ahead.
Ignoring his better judgment, he plays on a family connection to contact a French rubber grower in Xuan Loc. With their close ties to the Vietnamese natives, this secretive Frenchman and his American wife may be able to provide useful information.
They live a strangely peaceful life in their colonial paradise by maintaining a strict and increasingly tenuous neutrality. Though they're not impressed by America's cause, something about the purity of Sydney's idealism leads them to trust him, and that trust starts a deadly avalanche.
Sidney hoped to learn if "an abstract principle is worth fighting a war," but ultimately he learns that viable principles can't be abstract. In the end, though he's entirely without malice or treachery, he realizes he's become the "dangerous friend" his contacts feared.
Just respects his craft in a way that's increasingly rare. This is a novel that scorns ready-made ingredients: a war-story that mutes the battle scenes, a hostage crisis that spurns the dramatic rescue, a love story that honors the couple's privacy. Amid all the smoke produced by Vietnam's "armies of the night," "A Dangerous Friend" is a clear-eyed delineation of the idealism, ignorance, and ambition that stoked the fire.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to email@example.com