A man's groping attempts to reignite his life are juxtaposed with painful snapshots of political strife in Guatemala--in this energetic but uneven first novel, winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize. It's Armando's 30th birthday, and there's scant reason to celebrate. A former student at Harvard Law, he dropped out, divorced his wife, moved back to the Bay Area, and gained 50 pounds. Arriving home, he's startled by a visitor lurking in his stairwell: his college friend Spoon, who announces, ``I've come to save you.'' Anthropologist Spoon is getting married in Guatemala, and he commandeers Armando to be his best man. The bride-to-be is the tranquil but repressed daughter of Hoover Schultz, a capricious coffee grower of tremendous wealth and an old crony of Spoon's father. Once in Guatemala, Armando heads off to run a personal errand in the countryside, where he is kidnapped and humiliated by a band of guerrillas. Meanwhile, Schultz offhandedly allows Spoon to hold an election on one of his plantations: It has a jerry- rigged, let's-play-at-democracy air to it, but one of Spoon's best friends is murdered, perhaps by Schultz's son. Should Spoon cancel the wedding to honor the dead? Formerly passive Armando, released from captivity, presses for a police investigation, but the wedding goes on. Ultimately it's man-of-action Spoon who goes back to Connecticut to become a paper-pushing assistant professor, while dreamy Armando is lost to the wilds of Guatemala. In the terrific early chapters, Schweidel achieves a high-wire intensity: crackling vignettes that resonate with psychological insight. But as his characters descend into the Guatemalan maelstrom, events whiz by, and tautly elegant meditations on helplessness, hope, and loss give way to rushed treks through speed-blurred scenery. An ambitious but hyperkinetic debut.