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BOOK REVIEW : Household Skirmishes Over Vietnam War : THE NIGHT TRAVELLERS<i> by Elizabeth Spencer</i> Viking $19.95, 355 pages

TIMES BOOK CRITIC

If the U.S. engagement in Vietnam was a war half-fought, the activist war resistance was a revolution half-fought. For those on the opposing extremes, there was something in common; the sense of a process painfully arrested. Like fuel injected but not burned up, it left a noxious residue, a bitter taste of incompletion.

In “The Night Travellers,” set in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Elizabeth Spencer suggests something of this; a poisonous cloud that neither precipitates nor disperses. To do so, she contaminates the telling; deliberately, I think. In her story of a family divided by generation and by the war, Spencer’s writing undergoes a kind of maiming. It stumbles, wanders, repeats, and lurches from poetic suggestiveness to taut clarity to blatant clumsiness.

Evoking the disorientation of the times and the bleak extremism that erupted after a long, perhaps smug, sense of national amelioration, Spencer has wedged burrs under her tongue. It is an odd, risky venture, and to my mind, it does not work.

In the first part of “The Night Travellers,” set in a North Carolina college town, we read of Kate Harbison, a researcher in a local chemical laboratory, and of her daughter, Mary Kerr, who becomes a dancer. Kate, a farmer’s daughter, married into a prominent local family; she is widowed when her husband dies of a heart attack. She is attractive and ambitious, she is also a veritable spider.

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Her research involves deadly war chemicals. She had been jealous of her husband’s love for their daughter. When he dies of a heart attack after watching Mary dance for him on a hot day, Kate blames her. Later, she has Mary’s kitten killed.

These poisonous bits alternate with stretches of almost-saccharine narrative. The effect is sickly and disquieting; an awkward mangling of grandiloquent cliches, as if Kate were doing the narration. Of her dead husband we read: “Kind and intelligent, he had a manner of being well born.” Of a professor who returned to the college after working in the government, we read: “He had become a legend of endless brilliance, drawn to Washington on wings of numberless honors.”

The professor works against the war. Jeff Blaise, his disciple, becomes Mary Kerr’s lover; he will join the peace movement and go underground. Kate, jealous of her daughter, tries to seduce him and fails. She marries Fred, a powerful financier who shares her hatred of war resisters.

The second part of the book takes place in Canada, where Mary finds refuge after Jeff goes into hiding. She struggles to support herself and their baby, Kathy; she works with a small dance group. At one point, cut off from Jeff, she attempts suicide. Kate and Fred take Kathy; when Mary has recovered, she goes to their house to “kidnap” her. In fact, no kidnaping is necessary; the notion is part of the imagery used to suggest the violence of America’s divisions.

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Jeff joins Mary in Canada--some of his loving letters to her had been intercepted by the reliably wicked Kate--and they live peacefully until he is arrested on a trip to the United States, and sent to Vietnam. His arrest is the result of pressure by the well-connected Fred.

Fred and Kate are grotesque archetypes. Kate is monstrously disjointed. She lives in a perpetual dream as the heroine of a Scott Fitzgerald story.

When she sees Fred playing with Kathy, she almost hits her; it is the same jealousy she displayed with her daughter and her first husband. “Lover into father,” she broods. “What right do they have to change like that? Children take what lovers have. They take it right away.”

Fred, more veiled, is equally vindictive toward the younger generation, as represented by Jeff. Together, the couple seems to stand for the sacrifice of America’s children--in Vietnam and perhaps since--by an older generation that does not want to relinquish its comforts and illusions. Jeff and Mary Kerr, accordingly, represent the sacrificed children.

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Jeff is rendered as simplistically as Kate and Fred; he is tender, idealistic and highly responsible. He is not, however, a person; he is a showroom of moral decor. Mary, along with her baby, is the most humanly and effectively rendered of the four. In her Canadian isolation, in her effort to find a ground to stand on in this quagmire, she is a quiet symbol of generational pain.

Otherwise, “The Night Travellers” founders in its garish use of stereotypes, its touches of Gothic extremity, and the stylized banality and disjointedness with which it is told.

It aims, I think, for an effect similar to the carnivals in parts of Southern Europe, with their giant painted heads of papier-mache, bobbing and bowing to represent human vices and vanities.

With Spencer’s grotesques, we seldom get past the papier-mache.

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Next: Judith Freeman reviews “Drinking Dry Clouds” by Gretel Ehrlich (Capra).


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