A Dangerous Friend

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....

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Boston, MA 1999 Quarter Cloth First Edition New in New jacket 8vo-over 7?"-9?" Tall. New York, NY, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999. First edition. 8vo. Brown quarter cloth with ... gilt lettering embossed on spine over flecked tan boards, with textured beige endpapers, 256 pp. A few civilians with bright minds and sunny intentions want to reform Vietnam; but the Vietnam they see isn't the Vietnam that is. Before long, the rampant missteps and misplaced ideals trap them in a moral crossfire. Compelling and thought-provoking! New in new dust jacket, protected by a mylar cover. Read more Show Less

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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

From Barnes & Noble
Collateral Damage

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

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

Newsday
A rewarding blend of wisdom and fire.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Gripping action...The reader is altogether entertained.
The New York Times
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.

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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395856987
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/28/1999
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Ward Just is the author of fourteen previous novels, including the National book Award finalist Echo House and An Unfinished Season, winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Award. In a career that began as a war correspondent for Newsweek and the Washington Post, Just has lived and written in half a dozen countries, including Britain, France, and Vietnam. His characters often lead public lives as politicians, civil servants, soldiers, artists, and writers. It is the tension between public duty and private conscience that animates much of his fiction, including Forgetfulness. Just and his wife, Sarah Catchpole, divide their time between Martha’s Vineyard and Paris.

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Table of Contents

The Effort 1 The Family Armand 13 A Child in Such a Milieu 37 Dacy 56 Getting Used to It 74 A Shooting in the Market 98 Assimilate or Disperse 118 Big Dumb Blond 140 Plantation Louvet 165 The Life of the Mind 185 Pablo's Hat 208 The Arsenal of Democracy 235

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First Chapter

Chapter One


The Effort


* * *


I will insist at the beginning that 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 often all three at the same time. The war stories were from a different period, later on, when the war became an epidemic, a plague like the Black Death. Society was paralyzed by fear. Order broke down. Duty and honor were forgotten in the rush to survive. Commanders deserted their units, friends turned their backs. Among the population, individual burials were replaced by burials en masse. The American morgue was expanded again and again. Aircraft that brought fresh troops returned with coffins. I remember watching a doctor perform an autopsy while humming through his teeth, the identical note repeated monotonously. His fingers were rigid as iron.

    When he saw me, he looked up and whispered, Bring out your dead.

    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 early days, when civilians still held a measure of authority. We were startled by the beauty of the country, 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 task 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 and the Frenchman and his wife who lived in the parallel world, the one we thought was a mirage from the century before, a bankrupt colonial milieu that offered — so many possibilities, as Dicky Rostok said.


We went to Vietnam because we wanted to. We were not drafted. We were encouraged to volunteer and if our applications were denied, we applied again. We arrived jet-lagged at Tan Son Nhut airport where someone met us and hurried us off to wherever we were billeted, usually a villa on one of the wide residential boulevards that reminded everyone of a French provincial city. Even the plane trees looked imported. And later that day we showed up for work at one of the agencies or the embassy or Lansdale's outfit or the Llewellyn Group and briefed — an exercise that had much in common with initiation into a secret society, Skull and Bones or the Masons. We learned a new language, one that excluded outsiders. We lived with one eye on Washington and the other on Hanoi, and the Washington eye was the good eye. The effort — that was what we called the war, The Effort — was existential, meaning in a steady state of becoming. War aims were revised month to month and often week to week, to keep our adversary off balance.

    There were thousands of us recruited from all over the government, from foundations, think tanks, and universities, too; even police departments. Sydney Parade had worked for a foundation while Dicky Rostok was a foreign service officer, as was I. A few of us went at once to the countryside, where we administered various aid programs in collaboration with our Vietnamese counterparts. We worked harder than we had ever worked in our lives, or would ever work again. We were drunk on work. Work was passion. We were in it for the long haul, and from the beginning we swam upstream.

    We reorganized their finances. We built roads, bridges, schools, and airstrips. We distributed medicine and arranged for army doctors to vaccinate the children and conduct clinics for the sick. Our agronomists devised new ways to cultivate and harvest rice and then introduced a miracle strain that grew beautifully but did not taste the way Vietnamese expected rice to taste; so it was grown and harvested and left to rot or exported to India. We performed these chores every day, all the while trying to discover what it was that kept the war going, even accelerating, month to month. The success of the enemy seemed to defy logic. We had so much and they had so little; our nineteen-year-olds were supported by an arsenal beyond the imagination of the guerrillas facing them. Or so we imagined, as we know next to nothing of their personalities, their biographies, where they had gone to school, where they were born, whether they were married or single, what animated them beyond the struggle for unification, a political ideal that could not account for their tenacious will; think of Brady's photographs of the Union infantry. So we wrote letters home describing Buddha's face. We described Vietnam as we would describe the character of a human being we had never seen but was famous nonetheless, an introverted personality replete with legend, rumor, and innuendo.

    After a few months, friends and family dropped their pretense of polite curiosity. They had their own urgent inquiries. How are things actually? The reports on the evening news are so confusing, we can't make head nor tail of them. Are we winning this war or losing it? Give us your opinion. Your letters are ambiguous! Please give us the straight story, what's happening out there really? What's the story behind the scenes? And later still, We hope you know how much everyone here is behind you boys and what you're doing in Vietnam. It sounds awful. We all appreciate the effort. Is everything all right with you? Keep your head down. Hurry home.

    Of course there was no straight story in the sense of a narrative that began in one place and ended in another. Nothing was deliberately withheld; very little was known. This was exhilarating, as if we were explorers in a land at the very margins of the known world. We argued all the time, unraveling the legend from the rumor and the rumor from the innuendo; and it was Parade who suggested that we were imprisoned in our own language, tone deaf to possibility. Parade thought the VC led the charmed life of the unicorn, the beast of myth that could be neither caught by man nor touched by a weapon. Rostok scoffed at that. There was no such thing as a charmed life. There was nothing on this earth that could not be tamed, given money enough and time.

    We ventured far afield to discover the logic to events. Perhaps all occupation forces find themselves at odds with their hosts, knowing at once that they are but a veneer to another, more natural life, a life in-country that goes on as it has gone on for centuries, a life as teeming and fluid and uncontrolled as the life beneath the surface of the great oceans. We came to understand that there was a uniform world parallel to the artificial world we inhabited. Ours was swarming with shadows, dancing and fluctuating day to day while the parallel world was symmetrical and anchored, prophetic in a way that ours was not. It was this world we had to enter in order to discover the nature of the resistance, meaning a reliable estimate of the situation. We only wanted to know where we stood, not so much to ask.

    In the meantime there was an infrastructure to be built and a bureaucracy to be put in place. The first was impossible without the second, and it was the second to which Rostok devoted his energies. He wanted his lines of authority to be unequivocal. Sooner or later, Llewellyn Group, generously funded, superbly organized, and staffed with the best minds, would discover a means to infiltrate the parallel world and decipher it — so many possibilities, as Rostok said.


He had a flattened nose, perhaps evidence of a youthful fistfight, and an unpleasant high-pitched laugh. He was always in motion, his hands describing arcs, his head turtling forward as he inquired, Huh? Huh? His memory was phenomenal, always an asset in management, but he seemed unaware that an overactive memory often blinded one to the circumstances of the present. Rostok was not at all bookish, but that's often the case with men of action. Those books he had read he invested with an almost mystical significance; probably he believed that the mere fact of his acquaintance gave them a kind of grandeur. Voodoo, Sydney Parade said.

    One of his favorites was Joseph Conrad, not the Conrad of the African jungles but the Conrad of the open Asian seas, the coming-of-age Conrad who was always conscious of the shadow line between youth and maturity. Rostok believed that Conrad had a particular purchase on the delusions that attended men organizing themselves in difficult or dangerous situations. He liked to recall Conrad's story of the marvelous sailing ship Tweed, a vessel heavy and graceless to look at but of extraordinary speed. In the middle of the last century she bested the steam mailboat from Hong Kong to Singapore by an astounding day and a half. No one knew what there was about the Tweed that accounted for her exceptional spank, perhaps the shape and weight of the keel, perhaps the placement of the masts, perhaps the ratio of sail to the length and breadth of the hull. She was built somewhere in the West Indies, teak throughout, the best of her breed and soon to be left behind by the iron steamers. Such was her fame, and such her mystery and allure, that officers of British men-of-war came aboard to look at her whenever they shared a port. They took meticulous measurements, they interviewed all hands, but no one ever discovered her secret.

    The Tweed's former skipper, Captain S— --, thought he knew. When Conrad met the captain he had transferred from the Tweed to another ship, but his former command continued to hold his allegiance. Captain S — -- told Conrad that she never made a decent passage after he left her helm. It was obvious that his superb seamanship was the reason for her great success and without him the Tweed was just another lumbering coaster. This was the mystical union between ship and skipper, each ennobling the other. Captain S — -- looked on the sailing ship Tweed as Rodin looked on a fat block of granite.

    Something pathetic in it, Conrad observed.

    And perhaps just the least bit dangerous.

    But Rostok held with the captain.


My first posting abroad was in the consular section, Saigon, and it was there that I met Dede Griffith, as she was known then. Dede was already seeing Claude Armand, in effect dividing her time between the tiny USIA office on Nguyen Hue Street and Plantation Louver. When Claude was occupied I used to take her to dinner at Guillaume Tell or Ramuncho, and in due course we became good friends. Everyone liked Dede. When she and Claude were married, I gave her away — and never was a woman happier to replace one name with another. Thereafter she was Dede Armand and very quickly she dropped from sight, at least from the sight of the American community, growing each day. Of course I am the moron who failed to notify the lads upstairs when Dede came to renew her passport.

    I knew the members of Llewellyn Group. It was hard to miss them, Rostok swaggering about the city like a Roman proconsul, though it was difficult to know exactly what he did, his specific brief, his place in the bureaucratic scheme of things. I got to know Sydney Parade very well because I was the one detailed to drive to Tay Thanh to tell him that his father had died. He was terribly upset at the news, it was obvious they were very close. Sydney had his father's photograph in his desk next to the IN and OUT boxes. He invited me to stay for a drink and dinner and we spent the evening talking about his father and about the Armands. In the course of that evening and other evenings, I learned what he and Rostok were up to. Sydney spoke openly with me, probably because I was a junior consular official with no friends in high places and no motive to tell tales; not that there were many to tell. Also, Sydney was short. When his father died, he had only one month remaining in-country. Or, as he peevishly reminded me, twenty-eight days, seven hours, and umpty-ump minutes. I was short, too, but I wasn't counting the days.

    I returned to the State Department after three years in Saigon. And by 1974 I was back there, a little more seasoned now after tours in Foggy Bottom, Morocco, and the Philippines. I was assigned to the political section of Embassy Saigon — a kind of morbid practical joke, since by 1974 there were no politics, only the promise of more war despite the secretary's personal assurance: "Peace is at hand." In a way he was right, but it wasn't the peace he had promised and it wasn't at hand. At last, with American troops mostly withdrawn, the civilians were in charge once again. That meant we occupied the wheelhouse as the ship drifted toward the shoals.

    It is the simple truth that I was one of the last Americans to leave from the roof of Embassy Saigon on April 30, 1975, our day of dishonor and of rough justice, too. We had been at it for so long, and when the end came it was almost with relief; we don't have to do this anymore. For as long as I live on this earth I will remember the bitter odor of smoldering greenbacks. I thought of burning fruit. I stood at the door of the strongroom watching an overweight marine sergeant feed the stacks of currency into a makeshift fire, the smoke of thousands of dollars filling the corridor. He whistled while he worked. I hoped the stench would reach Washington, D.C., and remain there for a generation. I remember the patience and courtesy of the staff crowded on the narrow stairs leading to the roof, the dark jokes and hesitant laughter, everyone listening to the crash of explosives advancing from the northwest. We knew we were present at the end of something momentous, and not only a lost war or lost innocence, either. That's a European idea, and they're welcome to it. I believe we knew on that day that our choices had been reduced to two: fear of the known or fear of the unknown, and for the rest of our lives we would fear the known thing.

    Vietnam. You kept meeting the same people as you moved from post to post, diplomats you had served with, and of course the foreign correspondents. We were all connoisseurs of Third World adversity. I remember vividly a party I gave a few years ago. We sat up very late, about a dozen of us, diplomats and journalists; all of us had served in Vietnam during the early days. We made our bones in Vietnam, as American gangsters like to say — and none of us went home. It is equally true that none of our careers suffered, far from it. Service in the war gave you a leg up the ladder, even though, as seems so obvious now but wasn't obvious then, we were searching in a dark room for a black hat that wasn't there. And the same was true for the soldiers, at least for the officers. We survived and our reputations survived with us, and we, most of us, went on to succeed handsomely in the wider world. There is some irony here but no need to dwell upon it. The ironies of the effort are well known.

    Yet for some of us the episode was only that, a brief wrestle in a dark room, a distant memory, so distant that whatever pleasure or pain there was has been forgotten. The foreign correspondents went on to other wars in other regions — and we, too. We were there with them. Some of them and some of us finally gave up on the Third World — we had been at the roulette table for too long, unsuccessfully playing the same number — and moved on to senior positions in London or Paris or Washington, or out of the business altogether, into banking or public relations, lobbying, consulting, where we could use the friendships we'd made and the valuable knowledge we'd gathered. The wars and famines were for younger men and women with faster feet and uncrowded personal lives and a powerful appetite for the unknown thing.

    I was always surprised at those who were able to move on easily from Vietnam, the war one more experience in a lifetime of experiences, neither the worst nor the least. So vivid then, it receded, leaving only fugitive souvenirs and a few friendships. This was evident that night in my villa when we fell to talking of the early days of the Effort, the mid-1960s, before things went to hell and the plague arrived. Naturally we reminisced about our many blunders and about personalities, both the living and the dead. Six of us in the room remembered everyone mentioned, looks, job, eccentricities. Anecdote followed anecdote. I opened another bottle of cognac.

    When someone said, Whatever happened to Dicky Rostok?, I did not reply. I wanted to hear what the others knew, because Rostok had gone to considerable trouble not to make himself the black hat in the dark room.

    One of the journalists laughed, not unkindly. He said that Rostok had stayed on in Vietnam until early 1968. Then, with his usual exquisite sense of timing, he resigned from the foreign service and went home. About two days before the Tet Offensive. Can you believe it?

    Yes, I said.

    You mean he knew?

    Rostok had a nose, I said.

    I saw him in Switzerland not long after the war, the journalist went on. He was running some stock fund, living very well in Zurich. He tried to get me into the fund but I didn't have any money and told him so. Mistake, he said. His fund was one of the most successful in Europe and friends always got a discount. He said he had turned down an ambassadorship because he needed to make money. He had a new wife. And the new wife had expensive tastes. Then he went into insurance, selling life insurance to GIs, as I remember. But there was something not quite right about the way he went about it. There were complaints and an investigation. A congressional committee held hearings but nothing came of them.

    Funeral insurance, I said.

    Was it funeral?

    Black limousines, a bronze coffin, a gravesite in the cemetery of your choice, a Spanish veil for your mother, and an entertainment allowance for the party afterward. There were other benefits but I forget what they were. He made a lot of money before the company folded, 1970 was a great year for him.

    I don't know anything about that, the journalist said. I never knew him well in the war. But when anything hush-hush was going on I'd pay him a call and he'd give me some help. Dicky liked ink. Dicky had time for you. And that paid off for him. I was thinking that we all learned a lot in Vietnam, especially at the beginning when we pulled together, trying to find our way. No one wanted to be left behind. Rostok was good where it counted. I can't remember the name of that outfit of his —

    Llewellyn Group, I said.

    Yes, the Llewellyns. They were spooks, weren't they?

    They weren't spooks, I said.

    I thought they were spooks. They acted like spooks. Rostok had a deputy, wouldn't give us dick when we came around for information. What was his name?

    Sydney Parade, I said.

    Yes, Parade. Whatever happened to him?

    One of the other journalists cleared his throat and said irritably, Who the hell was Sydney Parade?

    Friend of Dicky Rostok's, I said mischievously.

    I don't remember any Parade.

    He went into teaching, I said. But I did not add that he'd retired and now spent his days alone on an island off Cape Cod, reading his books, watching the evening news, and sketching the pier that adjoined his house, one line drawing after another. Sydney believed in repetition.

    The reporter shrugged; he had no interest in anyone who had gone into teaching.

    Sydney was only there for a year, I said.

    Just a bit player in the war.


So the end of my narrative has come at the beginning, as if you are standing at a distance and hear the echo of the bells and can only guess at their size and location. It is always necessary to look forward and backward at the same time. Only in that way can we preserve our identities and live truthfully. You know the end of things as well as I do. We cannot pretend not to know them or deny that they exist. When we relate events from the past we know the results and must acknowledge them, whether or not they bring us understanding, or consolation, or shame.

    The year is 1965, before the Effort, begun so modestly, turned into something monstrous. Take the measurements, interview all hands, and there's still a mystery at the heart of it. Sydney Parade told me Rostok's version of Conrad's tale of the Tweed and her dangerous skipper, and some of the other stories that appear in this book. Sydney was not always kind to himself, owning to his bad conscience and, by his own admission, to his naïveté in the beginning. Rostok was usually straight with the facts, though his ego got in the way of everything he did and didn't do. I have always believed that a mountainous ego resulted from an absence of conscience.

    I play no part in this narrative and will shortly disappear from it. I would not be writing it now except for my position in the middle of things. I was the only one in-country intimate with the four principals, Rostok, Parade, the Frenchman, and the Frenchman's wife — yes, and Gutterman, too. Do not forget for a moment that I was also present in Vietnam years later, when the country was unified by force, and Rostok and Parade were long gone.

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