Imagine identifying with a protagonist living on the streets and rocky ledges of East L.A., sustaining himself on wine, dope, and French bread. A bit hard to fathom? By the time David Thorne hits the streets in this book's third section, it seems exactly what we might do in his shoes. But to retrace our steps: This impressive first novel by Vietnam veteran Cooper begins in 1967. A high school genius, Thorne, the first in his family to attend college, drops out after one semester. He works in a factory, gets sent to Vietnam, comes back to the streets. As readers understand before the protagonist does, each stage is worse than the last. Thorne's most appealing characteristic is his normalcy: He's in the war, thrust into terrifying situations, yet his actions and reactions are very much as we imagine our own might be. And a sense of humor makes him almost endearing. Piecing together dead bodies, for example, he holds a finger to his nose and smells Chanel No. 5. Impeccably paced, the combination of boy and man is particularly apt. In a mud-filled river, the sole survivor of his company, he has the wherewithal to tie the dead men's ponchos together to make a raft, braving current and branches, talking to his dead friends as he goes along. The next section begins: ``Being alone is scary.'' The book's tripartite structure works perfectly. Action- filled battle scenes in part two are astutely contrasted with boredom at the factory in part one. It is this long middle section that carries the whole. Here, in focused chapters, complete in themselves yet unified by tone, Cooper gives vivid portraits of the people in the Vietnamese landscape, men who brave the heat, fear for their lives, rape, murder, commit suicide, and deal dope. Hundreds of adjectives could be used to describe this novel: calm, lyrical, poetic, sensitive, tender.... All seem like misnomers. All fit.