How ironic--or maybe not--that one of the so-far best, most affecting Vietnam novels ever should come from a woman. There are strong reasons for it: Mason's artistry--so generously displayed in her short stories and now legitimately enfranchised in the novel--is fully and subtly up to the task; and her procedure--obliquity, a reconstruction postponed to a later time of peace, in rural America rather than an Asian jungle--is so simple it's scintillant. Samantha ""Sam"" Hughes has just graduated from high school in Hopewell, Kentucky. Her father, whom she never knew, was killed in Vietnam 18 years before; her mother now lives in Lexington with a new husband and baby. Sam, in Hopewell, lives with her mother's brother Emmett, also a Vietnam vet and someone who never quite righted himself after the war. He does fix-it jobs as odd as he himself is (like a 1960's throwback, he'll occasionally--and scandalously--wear a skirt); he watches birds, won't drive a car, avoids a woman (also a vet--a Vietnam nurse) who clearly wants him, and stays home playing Pac-Man and watching reruns of M*A*S*H on cable with Sam. He has pains in his head, and a late case of pimples (Agent Orange symptoms, Sam is sure), and is in every way a casualty who "". . .can barely get to the point where I can be a self to get out of."" But that is, in the book, a late confession; until then, Emmett is an extraordinarily attractive character (as is almost everyone else here): uncomplaining, his eccentricity smoothing down his traumas--which arise, however (one of the book's psychological coups), in Sam, her catastrophic imagination, ignorance, and driven need to know and feel what this national wound was really like before two decades of emotional suppression attempted to erase it wholly. Whether she's writing about dailyness--MTV, Geraldine Ferraro, AM oldies stations--or the extraordinary--chloracne, flashbacks, impotence--Mason always has the surest touch for the unaimed (in honorable line with Chekhov, Henry Green, Eudora Welty) that allows her characters intimately and untensely to deal with real fright. Southern country amiability plays a part--Mason's realism--but this friendliness shows up as a grateful defense against a too-raw heart. The characters' confusion also guards against sentimentality, of which there's hardly any here, be it in pitch-perfect dialogue or plain but never hackeyed narration or in the book's deeply moving last scene. Mason's great risk is also the great payoff: the time-lag, Sam's teen-age years coming two decades after the fact of what she needs most to understand. The now, as this book knows, is helpless against the then--but it is also its balm and cure. A wise, strong, seemingly effortless, and very major American novel.