An impressive, discriminating, but finally very frustrating first novel. It's about a death in Vietnam--that of Navy lieutenant Richard Vail--and about the ripples this death sends out, nearly swamping Vail's wife. Richard, a gunnery specialist assigned to Marine jungle patrols, has already once been seriously wounded, sent home; after he heals, he decides not to fight against being sent back to combat And this decision--in a novel that is distinctively hinged with decisions, large and small--leaves wife Katherine and daughter Terry feeling abandoned, a little less loved. Katherine responds by immersing herself in asceticism: living with Terry in the New Hampshire mountains after Richard leaves again, toning her mind and body with excessive self-denial. So the book goes, alternating between Katherine (struggling with her needs, her imposed emptinesses) and Richard's eloquently recorded impressions of the ways of that particular war. (Pfarrer's descriptions of the technology--and the gore there-from--are remarkably precise, vivid, clearly first-hand, frequently beautiful.) Still, the tone is perhaps kept too high throughout--with even a makeshift camp shower treated to rich meditation: ""As Vail washed his body clean, seeing the vulnerability of even the strongest and the strength of even the most vulnerable, he perceived their sacredness. As Boethius says, the mind not only receives an impression as sand takes a footprint but reaches out to seize an idea. In this fashion Vail thought that these bodies and these lives were sacred too."" And, as a result, there's more sensibility than story here, with two principal characters who are so subtle and smart that they never quite get convincingly caught up in the raw, fateful narrative momentum one expects from such a tale. Nonetheless: the debut of a genuinely searching writer--a highly promising one who may remind you of John Casey's mandarin self-assurance, of James Agee's intensity.