No escape from past confinement

THE SPECIAL PRISONER By Jim Lehrer Random House 230 pp., $23.95

In this short novel, PBS journalist Jim Lehrer tackles all the big questions: How can fighting a war be both honorable and horrible? Does a great good - ending war - justify a great atrocity? Can a man who engages in cruel acts eventually find inner peace? Is revenge ever a reasonable response to injury and injustice? Could a good man murder an evil enemy?

"How could a normal, civilized child of God do such a thing?" wonders Bishop John Watson after he has killed the man he believes is the Japanese officer who sadistically tortured him in a prison camp during World War II. Fifty years after the plane he piloted was downed on a bombing run over Tokyo, Watson - now a Methodist minister - thought he had not only survived but also had come to terms with that experience. Then he sees the man he thinks is his torturer in an airport.

In an elegantly woven then-and-now narrative, filled with brutal details about the inhumanity on both sides, Lehrer unfolds a stark morality tale. Some will find the tone when he writes about the Japanese almost racist, reflecting, perhaps, prevailing attitudes during the war.

In dramatic contrast to Lehrer's popular humorous novels like "Purple Dots," "The Special Prisoner" is a dark tale, with no light at the end of the tunnel. The answer to all the questions seems to be that only death can resolve the conundrums and complications of life.

*Ruth Johnstone Wales is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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