There's an engaging character--and a resonant clutch of images--at the center of this promising but unfocused and sadly labored first novel. The character is stand-up comic Barney from Montreal--who adored his step-grandfather, legendary comic Sam; who outraged his parochial school with his acquired Yiddish (""You schnorer he yelled at Brother Louis""); who outraged everyone by doing jokes at Sam's funeral, in memoriam. And now (1967), courtesy of Milligan's Talent Agency, Barney is entertaining the troops at Bien Hoa airbase with canny, cutting routines that grab the Vietnam soldier in a way that Bob Hope's (idol of Barney's colleague, fat Sheldon) do not. This is a fairly arresting premise--which, if it had been allowed to develop without emphasis on the inherent themes, might have made a fresh sort of Vietnam novel. But unfortunately, aside from one nice episode where Barney fights the Viet Cong by throwing live lobsters (intended for a military banquet) at them, the book that Burke builds up around Barney is mostly strain and pretension. The style is pseudo-cinematic, with restless cross-cutting. The plots waver between surrealism and melodrama: Barney's in love with dancer Donna, who's sleeping with maniacal Col. Isaacs (she's secretly intending to kill him because he was responsible for her cowardly soldier-husband's death); someone is murdering sentries at the airbase (the killer turns out to be one of the Vietnamese kids on the mad Colonel's pet baseball team); and Col. Isaacs lunatically insists on a Last Stand against the Cong at Xuan Loc--during which Barney will be forced to kill. All of this suffers from a bad case of trying-too-hard, with heavy underlining of the ironies (""Laugh till it kills you!"" ad nauseam) and effortfully zany action (the destruction of a General-owned brothel). Even more exasperating, however, are Burke's catchall digressions into Vietnam-reporter lore and pompous 1960s Vietnam/rock culture-watching--stale material that's been handled far better in Herr's Dispatches and others. A disappointment, then, with dismaying resort to so many of the black-comic clichÃ‰s which have grown up around Catch 22--but Barney and his routines are special enough to suggest that ex-journalist Burke may have better novels ahead now that he has cleared out his Vietnam notebook.