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INDIAN COUNTRY by Philip Caputo (Bantam: $18.95; 418 pp.)

June 21, 1987|Dick Roraback | Roraback is a Times staff writer

"Another novel about Viet vets?" asks a colleague, thumbing through a review copy of Philip Caputo's "Indian Country." "Haven't we had enough books on war?"

A question answered with a question: "Have we had enough books on love?"

Love and war, the central themes of literature, then, now, forever: Homer to Cartland, Beowulf to Buscaglia. All's fair.

War and love: opposed extensions of the human condition, as are the dual meanings of the titular "Indian Country." Literally, Indian Country is a forested, halcyon stretch of wilderness on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a place where Ojibwa lived--sometimes still live--in total harmony with nature.

Figuratively, Indian Country, to U.S. troops in Vietnam, is hostile territory, dangerous, alien.

Christian Starkman has known both. So has his boyhood hunting and fishing friend, Boniface George St. Germaine, one of the last of the Ojibwa.

Both have gone to Vietnam, where Bonny George has found death. Starkman has found worse. In the word of Bonny George's grandfather, a tribal elder with a surpassing understanding of men's souls, Starkman has found a fundamental "disharmony."

Beyond memory of the ineffable horrors of paddy and jungle, Starkman carries an overload of guilt: In error born of panic, he has called down the air strike that killed Bonny George.

Instinctively, Starkman--no bum but surely not a whole man--drifts back 10 years later to the Upper Peninsula of his young manhood. Encased in a capsule of his own construction, a capsule that shuts out laughter, hope, redemption, Starkman implodes into delayed disintegration.

His lapse is unconscious, but no less excruciating, neither to him nor to his wife and children. A lapse, indeed, which leads back to the jungle, driving him to erect barbed wire around his isolated home, to "clear a line of fire," to "patrol the perimeter," to wait for "them" to come and get him. In death will be release.

Beyond the almost subliminal contrasts of Indian countries, there are layers of consciousness in Caputo's book that must be stripped back by the reader as well as by the tormented veteran.

There is the abiding influence of Starkman's father, a Lutheran minister who was a noted militant pacifist, and who never understood nor forgave his son's defiant enlistment, even on his death bed.

There is the forest, no longer primeval, in which Starkman works for a lumber company that "makes money the old-fashioned way, by tearing riches out of the earth." The "execution" of the trees devastates Starkman beyond his own understanding: "Chainsaws ripped the forest's silence, their roaring and sputtering . . . like machine guns f1769105774bodies like wood over there . . . and over here we stack the wood like bodies."

There is Starkman's wife June, a sturdy, capable Finn, a social worker whose compassion clashes with Starkman's self-absorbed lassitude.

As did the war, "Indian Country" builds toward--descends into--funk, then phobia, finally terror.

In the end, though, Caputo's is a story of forgiveness, ostensibly the forgiveness of Starkman by Bonny George's grandfather; in reality, the forgiveness that must come from within.

Yes, the Vietnam War has been written about before.

Yes, "Indian Country" has been explored, mined, combed and recombed in recent years.

And yes, Caputo explores it again. Better--far better--than most.

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