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Sunday, Aug. 18, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Return to Vietnam


UP COUNTRY, by Nelson Demille. Warner Books: New York, 2002, 706 pp., $26.95 (cloth)

In May 1968, Nelson Demille, while serving as a "grunt" in a U.S. Army combat unit in the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam, found a letter on the body of a slain North Vietnamese soldier. Three decades later, Demille -- already one of America's top novelists -- returned to the former battlefields as a middle-aged tourist.

That letter, the return visit and the war that set the stage for both gave Demille all the elements he needed for this entertaining novel, which blends an old murder, war reminiscences, foreign intrigue and romance over 700 pages, with the possibility of even more to come.

"Up Country" is told in the first person by warrant officer Paul Brenner, the same character competently played by John Travolta in the film version of an earlier Demille novel, "The General's Daughter." Brenner is a tough and funny Irish-American army cop with a heart of gold, except, it seems, for criminals and the women who love him.

The mystery begins during a battle in the A Shau Valley in May 1968, when an unnamed American soldier removes a letter from a North Vietnamese corpse. He takes it home as a war trophy and many years later the letter is translated. Its contents are highly disturbing: While hiding in the midst of a battle, the Vietnamese writer, the brother of the man who was killed, describes a dispute between two American officers in which a captain murders his subordinate in cold blood. The U.S. Army wants to find the killer and prosecute. Reluctantly, Brenner agrees to come out of his recent retirement and travel to Vietnam, where a native agent would arrange a meeting with the letter's author.

Upon arrival at the old Saigon airport, Brenner is rousted by the hostile Col. Mang, who seems to know (although we never find out how) that Brenner is not your average American tourist. After making the American sweat, Mang reminds him, "This is my country, Mr. Brenner, and you are not the one with the guns any longer." It is a prelude to the running game of hide-and-seek to come.

In Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), Brenner makes contact with Susan Weber, employee of one of the U.S. companies that have begun to operate in Vietnam. Fluent in the local language, Susan offers to act as Paul's interpreter for the duration of his stay.

From Saigon, Brenner and Susan work their way northwards through Nha Trang, Qhi Non, Hue, Quang Tri, Khe Sanh . . . places that figured in the daily headlines of the Pacific Stars & Stripes in the course of the war.

Their sojourn overlaps with the lunar New Year holiday, Tet, which gives Brenner the opportunity to reminisce over his harrowing combat experiences as a soldier during the bloody Tet offensive of January 1968.

Susan emerges as the Caucasian version of actress Anna May Wong, at turns smart and seductive, devious and deadly, and thus fully up to the role of Dragon Lady so indispensable to classic Asian adventure tales. And the worldly wise Brenner senses that when their mission is accomplished, Susan may have orders to terminate him.

In a country where Europeans stick out so obviously, it's unlikely these intrigues could really occur, but Demille does not overly stretch the reader's credibility. Nor does he patronize the Vietnamese, whom, of course, he encountered personally on the battlefield. In the climax where two veterans, former enemies, meet, he writes,

". . . Mr. Vinh looked surprised that I knew a little of his war experiences. We made eye contact again . . . I saw no hostility, and I knew I would not. In fact, as we looked at each other, I had no doubt that he was saying to himself, 'This poor bastard was there, too.' "

As for the murder that Brenner was sent to investigate, its surprise solution fails to result in a satisfactory conclusion. Trying to persuade Brenner to let the killer walk, one character argues, "The issue here, Paul, is not guilt or innocence, or even justice or morality. The issue here is the past . . . We [Vietnam veterans] are bound together . . . by blood and common nightmares . . . ."

Brenner is unmoved, and this reviewer hopes Demille will tie up his story's loose ends in a sequel. Even if he does not, he has already produced a powerful reminder that peace treaties and restored diplomatic ties serve as scant consolation to wars' scarred survivors. The moral of this story is that when exceptional wrongs occur, time does not heal all wounds.

Mark Schreiber is a devotee of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia.


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