Dreaming Up the Next Vietnam : LIFE DURING WARTIME<i> by Lucius Shepard (Bantam Books: $8.95; 448 pp.) </i>


The writing in “Life During Wartime” sure doesn’t give you much rest. Lucius Shepard cues everything to a deliriously high lyrical pitch right off, and whatever one’s reservations about this sort of overfluent prose, it’s a feat to sustain it through such a long novel. Many of the pivotal scenes have precisely the trance-like rush the author intends for them. Shepard has a fondness, and a skill, for big, set-piece effects; nearly all the novel works as a display case for his talents, if nothing else.

The best thing Shepard has going for him is his premise. In an unspecified near future, Central America has become the next Vietnam that it perpetually threatens to turn into. A huge U.S. Army is fighting an elusive enemy, decked out in all the familiar paraphernalia of body bags, choppers, and firebases--as well as some unfamiliar new wrinkles, like the “Sammy” (for samurai) drug that’s given to troops to jack up their fighting spirit.

The young soldier David Mingolla, on leave in “Free Occupied Guatemala,” is already half nuts from the war. The careful rituals he and two buddies have evolved to keep their sanity gets disrupted--for one by a breakdown into Sammy-induced psychosis, for Mingolla by an attraction to a woman named Debora, who responds in kind while also hinting at quite another sort of bond between them.


Mingolla, it seems, is psychic, as is she. But both sides in the war use psychics as weapons, supposedly for their prophetic gifts, actually for their ability to control others’ minds.

Recruited for the elite Psicorps, Mingolla is told that his first assignment--a bit part, this--is to kill Debora. But the expected will-he-or-won’t-he scene never materializes. Instead, Mingolla’s mission turns into a long, freakish journey through the war zones, with Shepard laying on one heart of darkness after another--endless brutalities, and a gallery of eccentric Kurtzes, each with a story to tell. Ultimately, in Panama, with Debora as his lover and intermittent ally, Mingolla penetrates the secret of the power which has been orchestrating the war all along.

Shepard is trying for the magic of a violent fable, and there are times when he seems on the verge of saying something poetically indelible about the power psychology that uses people and nations alike as mere occasions. The early sections, though seemingly as much inspired by the more hyperbolic Vietnam movies as by the real Vietnam, have a fevered verisimilitude. But once Mingolla is off on his trek, the horrors on view, instead of shocking or engaging us, come to feel like the hothouse gaudiness of a writer who’s simply found a highfalutin excuse for indulging himself.

Only occasionally do Shepard’s images seem to emerge naturally from the material, without the author having to salt the mine--as in a nice bit that has Mingolla perceiving a tremor in his hand as something alien to him: “He had thought the thing inside his hand was dead, but now he could feel it fluttering at the edges of the wound, leaking out in the rich trickle of blood that flowed over his wrist. It was trying to move back inside, wriggling against the flow. . . .” But even here, the writing’s overstrenuous prettiness vitiates the effect.

One reason why the book’s framing conceits don’t hold up is that they’re so secondhand--like the final, Pynchonesque revelation of mysterious family cabals masterminding everything. But Shepard also gets so high on his metaphors that they stop connecting even obliquely with the reality that they’re supposed to be metaphors for. Tim O’Brien, in “Going After Cacciato”--another novel to which “Life During Wartime” owes a rather hefty debt--knew enough to ground his fabulist explanations for Vietnam in all the everyday details of how it was; he was acknowledging that the war was, in a sense, too much for any allegory to live up to. Shepard just heads straight for the helium bottle--he gets away from any recognizable Central America just as fast as he can.

The contrast between Shepard’s evident literary sophistication and the ultimately vaporous uses he’s found for it suggest a kind of affectlessness about the world that’s all too common among American writers. The setting that he’s picked only amplifies that. Obviously, there can’t be any restrictions on a novelist’s choice of subjects. But it still takes a rather terrifying complacency to use a locale and situation so resonant with tragic contemporary associations as little more than a handy pretext for fantasies that are so bookishly inbred that they don’t even pretend to illuminate anything. Isn’t that a literary equivalent of the hubris that lets the United States do what it does in the real Central America to begin with?