Short-story writer Currey distills the Vietnam experience to an essence in this compact and powerful first novel about a young man's soul-forging experience in the war. Currey illuminates his unnamed narrator's odyssey via vignettes as telling as lightning in the darkness. Within the episodic narrative, which traces a path from a Middle-American upbringing to Vietnam and back, the familiar joys of boyhood (""The boy's bicycle tires hummed the asphalt. . ."") and adolescence (""A dark heaven of rock and roll, fall of color, and lives played out in cars"") give way to a mystery no less haunting but alien to the core: Vietnam, where the elegiac and the brutal lie side by side. ""Pain labored the length of my leg,"" the narrator says of being wounded, ""a generous pain, and I wanted to shout at the helicopters. I wanted to stand up and wave my arms and I was cheek-down in mud, falling, a stone through darkness at the limits of the known world falling along the ridge of the last visible horizon. . ."" A friend dies, ""blood smeared on his teeth""; at dawn, the narrator sees the ""sun rising out of the Pacific, transcendental magenta and scarlet, rain forest growing north into a settled haze and mountain, mythological, azure and green""; a dog roots at a corpse; the narrator kills; and finds in an affair with a Vietnamese woman ""decency, comfort, innocent refuge."" And as the exotic, raging, maddening fire of Vietnam sears him, the picture of his American girlfriend he'd been carrying around in his pocket falls into tatters. So, finally, when he returns to the States, he finds only ""a bright and alien world"" in which he's too dislocated to see anyone but his accepting, unpitying grandfather--to whom he opens his heart in a moving finale. At times, Currey's lyricism runs away from him, Kerouac-style; but his blackout technique ensures mostly tight control of the volatile subject and permits a flurry -of acid-etched, memorable images. Overall, then, an unusual and impressively vivid handling of a familiar theme.