PUBLIC LIFE by Ellen Akins (HarperCollins: $21; 281 pp.). This is a frightening, dense, fascinating story that manages to weave together a damaged Vietnam veteran, a hardworking film student who goes into advertising, and a governor who wants to be President--and succeeds, thanks to the film student, with whom he is then accused of having an affair. She, in turn, had an early romance with the Vietnam vet, who is raising the daughter he begged her to have, despite her protestations that she was too young and their relationship too weak to support a family. Lest this sound at all like political soap opera, be prepared: Akins has a taut, searing style that takes a little getting used to at first, in part because there is so much more going on in any given paragraph than in most of her peers’ minimalist prose. This is an engrossing look at image--self-image, and how it so often varies from others’ perceptions of us; public image, and how it comes to rule the lives of people who aspire to celebrity of any kind. Ann Matter, the filmmaker who becomes a presidential media advisor, is too good at communicating the essence of anything from a toothpaste to a candidate. The stunning end of her story, terrifying on its own, is even more so because we see the instinctive efforts at damage control that replace human emotion.