There are many good things to be said about this British political reporter's novel of Laos during the critical period 1959-1960 which was also that of the ugly Americanism of the Dulles era. It is written with a tough, informed intelligence; it integrates a tremendous amount of background on a small part of the world in which so many racially mixed and politically confused groups are operative; and it tells a story of some personal interest. But even though Mr. Meiring has been careful to explain the disparate influences-- the less evolue reader will have to pay attention. (i.e. ""it was fiercely critical of the reigning conservative Rassemblement du Peuple Lao party under Sananikone, and, even more, of the socialist Peace Party under Quinim Pholsena, and of Prince Souvannouvong's Neo Lao Haksat, which was the extreme left wing parliamentary party that represented the Pathet Lao."") Broadly speaking, this is the period which saw the right wing installation of Prince Souvanna Phouma in Vientiane; the Pathet Lao are still tenaciously insurgent; the French are losing influence; the game of Russian roulette goes on in one form or another; and behind or over it all, there's the ""fatal lethargy"" of traditionalism and Buddhist inaction. Narrowly, the book concerns the clash between the brinkman of the title, New Englander Peter Pridie, an ice cold loner and latent homosexual, and Jean-Philippe Raymond, a reporter for a French newspaper, a ""cerebral"" whom he will succeed in ousting after Jean-Philippe annexes Pridie's girl. The sexual involvement is one of the lesser imperatives; most of the book takes place in the larger arena of national and racial interests, many of which are self-serving. And the book's last irony is that even though Pridie is playing to lose (""you have to lose,"" as Jean-Philippe says) he seems to win. So does Mr. Meiring, over recalcitrant material.