A Dangerous Friend

A Dangerous Friend

by Ward Just
     
 

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In this, his twelfth novel, Ward Just penetrates more deeply into America's role in the world than he has ever done before. This beautifully constructed large-canvas novel of Saigon in 1965 can be justly compared to Joseph Conrad's NOSTROMO or Graham Greene's THE QUIET AMERICAN. A DANGEROUS FRIEND is a thrilling narrative roiling with intrigue, mayhem,

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Overview

In this, his twelfth novel, Ward Just penetrates more deeply into America's role in the world than he has ever done before. This beautifully constructed large-canvas novel of Saigon in 1965 can be justly compared to Joseph Conrad's NOSTROMO or Graham Greene's THE QUIET AMERICAN. A DANGEROUS FRIEND is a thrilling narrative roiling with intrigue, mayhem, and betrayal. Here is the story of conscience and its consequences among those for whom Vietnam was neither the right fight nor the wrong fight but the only fight. The exotic tropical surroundings, the coarsening and corrupting effects of a colonial regime, the visionary delusions of the American democratizers, all play their part. In A DANGEROUS FRIEND, a few civilians with bright minds and sunny intentions want to reform Vietnam — but the Vietnam they see isn't the Vietnam that is. Sydney Parade, a political scientist, has left home and family in an effort to become part of something larger than himself, a foreign-aid operation in Saigon. Even before he arrives, he encounters French and Americans who reveal to him the unsettling depths of a conflict he thought he understood — and in Saigon, the Vietnamese add yet another dimension. Before long, the rampant missteps and misplaced ideals trap Parade and others in a moral crossfire.

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Editorial Reviews

David Bowman
Before I address Ward Just's new novel, let's look at his last one, the National Book Award finalist Echo House . I'd heard good things about Just's work for years, but had never got around to reading him. Not knowing what to expect from Echo House , I found Just's Jamesian epic about the powerful old families of Washington, D.C., absolutely riveting. I hadn't been that engaged with a book since I was 18 and read The Great Gatsby for the first time. Although I regularly reread Gatsby every few years, I haven't yet reread Echo House . But Ward's new novel, A Dangerous Friend , is just out, and I've already read it twice.

The novel is set in Vietnam, a milieu that is a full-fledged genre, like Washington or Hollywood novels. That said, A Dangerous Friend transcends easy "genrefication." The first line even insists, "...this is not a war story. There have been plenty of those and will be many more, appalling stories of nineteen-year-olds breaking down, frightened out of their wits, or engaging in acts of unimaginable gallantry; and others all three at the same time...But that time was not my time. That time was later on, when things went to hell generally, and the best of us lost all heart.& My time was the early days, when civilians still held a measure of authority. We were startled by the beauty of [Vietnam], and surprised at its size. It looked so small on our world maps, not much larger than New England. We understood that in Vietnam, Americans would add a dimension to their identity. Isn't identity always altered by its surroundings and the tasks at hand? So this is a different cut of history, a civilian cut, without feats of arms or battlefield chaos. If love depends on faith, think of my narrative as a kind of romance, the story of one man with a bad conscience and another with no conscience...."

This certainly isn't something Rambo would say! A Dangerous Friend is a novel of manners set in pre-Tet Offensive Vietnam. Before psychedelic rock. Jane Fonda. William Calley. This is the Indochina that the book's first protagonist, Sydney Parade, comes to -- a 30-year-old intellectual drifter who has left his wife back in America to fulfill his "destiny" by joining the Llewellyn Group, a civilian organization that believes the best way to halt the red menace in Indochina is by educating the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese peasants.

After a stop in France, Parade reaches Vietnam, where he ends up assisting the pregnant American-born wife of a French plantation owner after the woman is injured by VietCong sympathizers. She miscarries twins, and suddenly the expected war story -- usually a masculine tale -- is feminized by showing a quieter drama than big guns going boom, boom, boom.

"I must tell you that the lack of big artillery was quite deliberate," Ward Just tells me on the phone from his home on Martha's Vineyard. "I was very, very interested in the civilian war. Tales of 18-year-old Marine foot soldiers have been explored pretty well by and Michael Herr and Tim O'Brien. Whereas the civilian side of things has scarcely been touched. Hence, in A Dangerous Friend , you hardly hear a shot fired in anger. This is quite deliberate. In 1964 most civilians there never heard gunfire. They were still wholly consumed with nation building."

Ward went to Vietnam himself as a reporter for The Washington Post (two of his war reports are collected in Reporting Vietnam: Part One; American Journalism 1959-1969). "I arrived a day or two after Christmas in 1965, and departed in the middle of 1966," he says. " A Dangerous Friend takes place in the year before I got there."

In the novel, the Frenchman's wife recovers, and Parade's counterpart, Pablo Gutterman, is introduced -- the myopic deputy of the Llewellyn Group, known for his Panama hat. "Perhaps it was time for a new hat, not that anyone sold genuine Panama in Saigon; this model was a Charlie Chan, the one with the single raised crease on the crown, bleached now the color of clotted cream."

After an American helicopter crashes and a "big dumb blonde" American captain is captured by the VC, the French plantation owner passes on a map showing the American's location. It is Pablo who must walk into the jungle to retrieve the American, knowing that his Panama hat is being followed by numerous eyes hidden in the foliage. It's a long, terrific scene. But while in the advance reader's edition of the book Pablo wears a Charlie Chan hat, in the final book it's a "Citizen Kane" hat. "Tiny details are often changed in galley stage," I say to Just, "But why the hat?"

"It's a funny story," he answers. "The Charlie Chan image bothered me a tad. As I was writing, I thought, 'Is that really what Pablo would wear launching off into the jungle?' But the image pleased me, so I left it there. Then Houghton Mifflin sent me the dust jacket. It had a Dan Duryea hat." He pauses. "That's probably not a name that means anything to you, but I'm 63 years old. Dan Duryea was a B-movie star in the 1950s and always wore a hat like this. So I changed it to 'Dan Duryea hat,' but three or four younger people said, 'Who the hell is Dan Duryea?' Then I got an idea that Orson Welles wore that hat in "Citizen Kane." I watched it on video and -- by god -- the hat was there in that scene where they are driving in a long line of limousines along the beach." He laughs. "This has to be the only case that I'm aware of that the content of a novel was changed to fit the dust jacket, rather than the other way around."

In the novel, after Pablo recovers the Big Dumb Blonde, a colleague maliciously sets in motion a military action where innocent Vietnamese peasants are wiped out. So much for educating hearts and minds. This tragedy is reminiscent of Graham Green's The Quiet American , really the first Vietnam novel. Green's "quiet American," Pyle, says something to the effect that: "It is the innocent who are responsible for the evil in the world, not the guilty." But Ward Just has clarified this notion to: It is the naïve who are responsible for evil. And naïve is Sydney Parade -- and perhaps America itself -- in a nutshell.

"I prefer 'naïve' to 'innocent,'" Just says. "But you could add another word to that: 'ignorance.' Ignorance is sort of a theme that goes all the way through A Dangerous Friend . Ignorance of the revolutionary situation in Vietnam. Ignorance of the language, the culture, the land. Just plain ignorance."

A Dangerous Friend is so different from a Tom Clancy gung-ho war novel that there is no danger of Ward Just being tagged as a "war writer." But Ward Just has often been categorized as a "Washington writer."

"Do you resent that label?" I ask.

"Most novelists resent being labeled anything," he answers. "'Novelist' seems to be just a fine descriptive word for what I do. A lot of my novels have nothing to do with Washington." He pauses. "But there's nothing to be done. People are going to label you, and you kinda live with that." He chuckles. "It isn't anything that keeps me up late at night."

Well, I can come up with more appropriate labels for Ward Just: A writer's writer. An essential writer. And perhaps most important, a writer whose books encourage rereading. The literary pleasures of A Dangerous Friend do not end with just one reading. On second reading you savor the landscape of Just's Vietnam, shimmering with a kind of Indochinese magic realism. You smile again at a character's outrageous dream of Ho Chi Minh making pastry. You catch overlooked bits of cutting satire ("'Fuck the hearts and minds of the people,' Pablo Gutterman said. 'We require the hearts and minds of the New York Times.'") Ward Just, himself, was once asked, "Can anything new be written about Vietnam?" He answered, "Of course. One hundred years after the American civil war -- which in some respect Vietnam resembles -- great books were being written." I bring his comment up to ask, Will A Dangerous Friend be considered a classic 100 years from now? I won't be around to find out, of course. But I'm betting on it.

--David Bowman

Newsweek
a powerful story beautifully told. ( May 3 )
San Diego Union
Just..allows each sentence in this lovingly textured novel to build atmosphere...In scenes that linger in the imagination, he shows it is possible, prayerfully, to hold out against the world's confusions and our own --and, if only in a stubborn human way, to arrive at a principled basis for conduct. ( April 25 )
Playboy
A Dangerous Friend is Ward Just's 12th novel. It's also his best. ( June 1999 )
Elle
Ward Just's fiction seethes with the moral complexities that undermine the American exercise of power, and his twelfth novel...takes its charged energy from Vietnam circa 1965, where his well-intentioned but seldom innocent characters create even deadlier havoc that the Washington power brokers Just has caught so precisely in previous books. ( May 1999 )
Dan Koenig
Just's latest novel reads something like a Conrad tale retold by Hemingway. Set in 1965 Vietnam, it tells of Sydney Parade, a civilian agency worker learning about everything from his spiritual interior to the farthest reaches of the American Empire. (Just himself was a newspaper correspondent in Vietnam during the war.) Recruited by a small-time megalomaniac named Rostok, Parade is commissioned to gather as much information as he can from a particular region in Vietnam in order to make Rostok's organization invaluable to U.S. operations. To this end, he must gather various statistics and gain the cooperation of a reclusive French plantation owner and his American wife, residents of Parade's region who are trusted by local villagers. Parade begins his task with a full-blown case of idealism, but through a turn of events involving an MIA, he learns hard lessons about life and war.

In one particularly telling passage, which is also the book's most direct and interesting reference to Hemingway, Parade imagines himself as an ambulance driver in World War I, a benignly neutral, supporting character in the story of time. But as he finds out, simply existing means being involved, taking sides and, above all, taking responsibility. While the book may not reveal anything new about the Vietnam War, Just tells a solid story and makes some interesting points; he shows how often harmless human foibles like self-importance can take the aspect of madness and summon hell to earth.

Newsday
A rewarding blend of wisdom and fire.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Gripping action...The reader is altogether entertained.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With the appearance of his 12th novel, former journalist (and Vietnam reporter) Just (Echo House) has reason to be proud of the books he has produced, all of them thoughtful, judicious commentaries on the ironies inherent in politics, culture and human relationships. This trenchant work, set in 1965 Vietnam as the U.S. is inching toward full-scale war, may prove to be his most significant; certainly, it reflects with quiet understatement one of the central moral issues of our century. Its protagonist, Sydney Parade, is emblematic of the idealistic, dangerously na ve Americans who felt it their mission to bring democracy to Southeast Asia. Recruited by Dicky Rostok--the brash, arrogant head of the Llewellyn Group, a foundation that purports to administer financial aid and technical assistance to Vietnam but is in reality a covert arm of Pentagon policy--Sydney leaves his wife and daughter in Darien, Conn., and travels to a country town near Saigon. Sydney is unaware of his vast ignorance of Vietnamese culture and political reality, but after he becomes involved with French expatriate and rubber plantation owner Claude Armand and his wife, Dede, a native Chicagoan, Sydney gradually loses his hubris. Eventually, he realizes that the American goal of "nation building" in Vietnam is at best a tragic delusion and at worst a cynical grasp at power. Almost accidentally, Sydney becomes the conduit for information about a U.S. Army captain captured by the VC. Ensuing events result in the annihilation of a village of innocent Vietnamese, betrayal of the Armands and the ruin of the one truly moral member of the Llewellyn staff. In spite of his good intentions, Sydney has become, as Dede Armand says, "a dangerous friend." Just gives readers an incisive vision of America's end of innocence. He does so with strongly limned characters who do not forfeit their individuality even as they are overwhelmed by history.
Library Journal
Vietnam as a military story has been told time and again. In his 12th novel Just pursues the idealistic vision of American civilians who wanted to affect the history unfolding around them in 1965. Sydney Parade joins up with a group bent on capturing the minds and hearts of the South Vietnamese--in return for information, they offer civic improvements like building roads and providing roofs for churches. When news of a captured American captain reaches him, Sydney makes decisions that presage the hellishly difficult choices faced by the military later in the war. Just, whose Echo House (LJ 3/1/97) was a 1997 National Book Award nominee, is a fluent interpreter of the American psyche. His hauntingly sad motifs are beautifully balanced by the brash political posturing of his characters and his evocative descriptions of the Vietnamese countryside. A fresh and discerning reprise of a still-evolving American saga that will surely find devoted readers. For all fiction collections. -- Barbara Conaty, Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC
James McManus
...[The book's] intricate network of imagery allows the reader to see the tragedy of Vietnam in ways that throw into high relief the conflicted array of Vietnamese, French and American interests....[The book] persuasively suggests that Americans...were in Vietnam for reasons both misguided and honorable.
The New York Times Book Review
Christian Science Monitor
...[W]hat'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....a clear-eyed delineation of the idealism, ignorance, and ambition that stoked the fire.
Bob Minzesheimer
The surrealism of Vietnam and Washington 30 years ago drove [Just] into fiction. Twelve novels later, [he] returns to Vietnam in A Dangerous Friend, an intensely intelligent novel, exquisitely drawn, written three decades too late...Just's novel can't change Vietnam. But it should be required reading at the White House on down...
USA Today
Kirkus Reviews
The former journalist, following last year's Echo House, returns to Vietnam, the subject of such earlier Just fiction as A Soldier of the Revolution (1970 ) and Stringer (1974). Just offers an ironic portrayal of American innocents undertaking "nation-building" in a land they don't understand: Saigon and environs in1965, when US presence is comparatively new, and when nonmilitary "Llewellyn Group" operative Sydney Parade arrives buoyed by visions of fruitful solidarity with Vietnamese hearts and minds, unaware that he's destined to become "a dangerous friend" to those who live "in country." Prominent among the latter are French rubber-plantation owner Claude Armand and his American wife Dade, objects of interest to Sydney's boss Dicky Rostok, an ego-driven bureaucrat who's convinced the Armands somehow serve the Viet Cong in exchange for being left unmolested. The stage is thus set for multiple dramatic confrontations, though Just makes the novel predominantly a vehicle for static conversational variations on the theme of well-meaning US megalomania ("Reinvention is the opiate of Americans"). The result is a frustrating book: exquisitely written, charged with vivid images suggesting Vietnam's mingled beauty and danger, yet idling along for much of its length (and occasionally slipping into reverse), soliciting our interest in its rather vapid protagonist (the narrator who introduces Parade to us disappears early on) by repeatedly underscoring his marital failure and ingenuous yearning to be a part of the life of his time. Just picks up the pace in the last 50 pages, when a diplomatic plot to rescue a captured American officer both succeeds and fails,perversely destroying much of what people like the Armands have painstakingly built; the meaning of all being encapsulated in another stunning image, that of the strong young American as a powerless "giant in the doll's house." In other words, America in Southeast Asia.

From the Publisher
"Novelist Ward Just is adept at getting under the skin of recent history and under the protectively colored language of national dogma." Boston Globe

"Extraordinary...Mr. Just's novel makes you want to run screaming into the street to protest retrospectively the war he has so movingly recreated." The New York Times

"A powerful story beautifully told." Newsweek

"Perhaps this book will garner Just the popularity he deserves. Its greatness will stand the test of time. Conrad and Melville remain contemporary writers a century after their books were published. One hundred years hence, A Dangerous Friend will remain a beautiful, beautiful book." The San Francisco Chronicle

"Emotionally wrenching and always beautifully observant, this is a work in the Graham Greene tradition." Entertainment Weekly

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780547561424
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
05/03/1999
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
138,589
File size:
0 MB

What People are saying about this

Ward Just
Just Ward, Interviewed in The New York Times, May 25, 1999

There is no way I'd go back to a war, no way I would get a quotation straight today. Many of the things that make you a good journalist have to be discarded to make you a good writer. Forget the research. In a novel, every fact is a rock thrown in the hull, and the boat sinks a bit.
Robert Stone
Robert Stone

A Dangerous Friend contains Just's most thoughtfully resonant prose -- it's beautifully written -- and its characterizations are unforgettable in their precision and accuracy. It's a meditation about the Vietnam War as well as an urgent message for the present day. Sometimes a novel of ideas can break your heart and this is one of them.

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