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From Barnes & NobleCollateral 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.