What's startling about this first novel is that, while white heat radiates from between the lines, Lawton presents the American presence in Vietnam as a devious gentleman's war rather than as the obscene, all-thumbs conflict it's been at the hands of previous novelists. Giles Trent is so attached to the embattled Southeast Asian country that when he finishes a Navy stint, he returns as a civilian advisor in the pacification proceedings that get underway around 1970. Becoming Deputy Ambassador Stilton's ``fair-haired boy'' (a term he dislikes), Giles is neatly positioned to take the occasional jaunt under fire, as well as to observe the subtle chicaneries of the upper military echelons sitting in Saigon amidst ceramic elephants. Many of his activities are carried on with reporter/inamorata Emily Macdonnell by his side. Meanwhile, Giles's outstanding characteristic is his ability to avoid almost any genuinely perilous entanglement (though he'd like more of one with Emily). Instead, he goes about at a casual pace, not changing, as he accumulates cynical viewpoints from other, more engaged people- -disillusioned Americans, resigned Vietnamese. In a land where secrecy is so lax that ``fizzy drinks'' stands are set up along battlefields, Giles talks to the wily Vua Noi Lao, who takes no sides--or, depending how you look at it, all sides. He visits the common-law widow of Nathaniel Bummpo Jones to hear how she sizes up attitudes and prejudices as a native. He's also in on decision- making that affects the invasions of Cambodia and Laos--eventually taking his own chancy, atypical step. It's Giles to whom the Deputy Ambassador says of a meeting with Richard Nixon: ``His speech was all bathos and self-pity. It was coarse. It was full of racial and religious epithets. Damn it, a gentleman doesn't say certain things.'' Lawton, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and who was himself a civilian pacification officer, has an axe to grind, but, here, he does so with an exceedingly polished, different fineness.