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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 13, 1995|CHRIS GOODRICH

A LOVELY COUNTRY: A Novel by David Lawton (Harcourt Brace: $22; 260 pp.). Emily Macdonnell, a reporter newly arrived in 1970 Vietnam, is surprised by the answer when she asks intelligence adviser Giles Trent why he didn't stay in the United States upon returning home after his first tour of duty. Americans, Giles tells her, seemed fat, their clothing "bilious" in color and pattern, the men effeminate--the country was soft and weak, in short, the antithesis of hardened, unyielding Vietnam. Giles is evidently a stand-in for first novelist David Lawton who served in Vietnam as a Marine and a civilian adviser--and "A Lovely Country" is the author's striking attempt to explain an attraction, an obsession, that most people find baffling. Lawton is successful on one level: He makes clear that well-placed Americans could gain far more power in Vietnam than they could at home, that direct, unmediated war-zone life can become an addiction, that in-the-field experience can create insurmountable contempt for distant, out-of-touch authority. In novelistic terms, though, "A Lovely Country" doesn't have much to offer, being predictable, relatively static and flat in tone: Emily falls in love with Giles; Giles finds his political loyalties shifting; the American military proves feckless and the Vietnamese resolute. The best thing about the book is that it's told from the hermetic inside, Lawton being fully versed in both the sophistication and surrealism of wartime Vietnam--the French-influenced gentility and native shrewdness of many Vietnamese, the drink stands set up alongside battlefields. Giles knows, on leaving Saigon in the final U.S. helicopter airlift of 1975, that come what may, the Vietnamese people would survive.

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