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A DANGEROUS FRIEND; By Ward Just; Houghton Mifflin: 256 pp., $25

The Best Books of 1999 | THE BEST FICTION OF 1999

December 05, 1999

Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage," Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"--American fiction writers have conjured up powerful portraits of war, largely from the foot soldier's chaotic point of view. But war as experienced by the policymakers, the civilian shapers, the power holders and the bureaucrats has not been a subject of American fiction. In fact, power generally has not much been favored by fiction writers. Ward Just has been the exception. Since the 1970s, he has brought us rare tales from the back rooms, bedrooms and corridors of influence and power in Washington. It is typical of him that in "A Dangerous Friend," his fierce new book about the Vietnam War, there are no soldiers, no bloody battles and only one dead body. Its pages are filled with civilians--bored, ambitious or idealistic volunteers, low-level officials in flight from the blandness of a vast provincial empire and launched happily on a "nation-building" adventure in a distant land. If you want to know what it must have felt like in 1965 to sit around a table in a suburb of Saigon, burning with energy and weighing the reams of facts that should have but never did tell Americans what was happening in Vietnam, this is the book to come to. It is amazing how much emotion Just can pack into the least novelistic of passages--into lists of projects and products and creature comforts, even of American visitors who paraded through the country. It is cumulatively a brutal portrait of Americans living in a country they are incapable of seeing.

HEAVY WATER And Other Stories; By Martin Amis; Harmony Books: 208 pp., $21

The world is grim when you turn to Martin Amis for comic relief. His thickly layered, sardonic, ironic, bitter British carping is soothing, downright restful after a meaningful wallow in the subconscious with a writer like Kirsty Gunn. More witty banter! More repartee! And these stories are very funny, especially "Career Move," in which Amis makes fun of the Hollywood machinery. In the world of this story, the product is poetry. Producers option poems and go into rewrites and pre-production and negotiate contracts and watch the competition. " 'Luke?' said Jeff. 'Jeff. Luke. You're a very talented writer. It's great to be working on 'Sonnet' with you. Here's Joe. . . . [T]he only thing we have a problem on 'Sonnet' with, Luke, so far as I can see, anyway, and I know Jeff agrees with me on this--right, Jeff?--and so does Jim, incidentally, Luke,' said Joe, 'is the form.' Luke hesitated. Then he said, 'You mean the form 'Sonnet's' written in.' 'Yes that's right, Luke. The sonnet form.' . . . 'Go with the lyric,' said Jim. 'Or how about a ballad?' said Jeff. Jack was swayable. 'Ballads are big,' he allowed. . . . 'Let's face it,' said Jeff, 'Sonnets are essentially hieratic. They're strictly period. They answer to a formalized consciousness . . . . Were we on coke when we said, in the summer, that we were going to go for the sonnet?' " If you lived here (and you do), you'd be home now. Amis is at his very best in the stories with the simplest structures. These allow his dialogue and his near-perfect pitch to make a reader laugh at the naive posturing we all do to stay alive.

GODS GO BEGGING; By Alfredo Vea; Dutton: 336 pp., $23.95

The greatest pleasure for a book reviewer is to announce the appearance of a wonderful novel and become in the process a public benefactor bearing good news. Alfredo Vea is today's news. But who is Vea? Readers of "La Maravilla" or "The Silver Cloud Cafe" need no introduction to his talent. For the rest of you, he is a defense lawyer who grew up as a farm worker and is becoming one of California's best novelists.

"Gods Go Begging," a meditation on the Vietnam War and on race, desire and urban gang wars, equals the passion and originality of his earlier work. But Vea goes beyond it in this depiction of a half-familiar, half-exotic world where horrific violence coexists with love and whimsy, just as Cajun spices and Vietnamese nuoc mam blend at the Amazon Luncheonette on San Francisco's Potrero Hill. Here, co-owners Persephone Flyer and Mai Adrong have been murdered, seemingly senseless homicides for which an illiterate African American youth, Calvin Thibault, has been arrested. Calvin's lawyer is Jesse Pasadoble, who met Persephone's husband on a hill in Vietnam that they were defending against North Vietnamese attackers, including Mai's husband. The husbands were lost in action and are presumed dead.

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