ON DISTANT GROUND by Robert Olen Butler


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David Fleming is a captain in Army Intelligence; in the closing days of the Vietnam war, however, he's on trial in Baltimore--court-martialed on the charge of releasing Vietcong prisoner Tuyen and subsequently shuttling him to safety. Fleming won't--and doesn't--deny the truth of the Army's accusations. But he can barely fathom his own motives (sympathy? humaneness?) for this impulsive episode. Likewise, both wife Jennifer (the new mother of the couple's first baby) and the defending lawyer find the Hamlet-like cast of Fleming's mind utterly mystifying. And the Army would rather not make Fleming a martyr at this dicey time of public-relations, only weeks before Saigon's fall; so he's merely dishonorably discharged. Then, however, spared a jail sentence, Fleming is free to pursue an even more extreme, quixotic mission: to find the child he fathered in Vietnam (via an affair with Vietnamese woman Suong), with rescue the ultimate goal. Thanks to the discreet help of a CIA friend, Fleming manages to get back into Saigon on a Canadian passport; he finds the child--a boy, now four. And finally Fleming is indeed able to leave with his son. . . because, serendipitously, ex-prisoner Tuyen is now an important North Vietnamese functionary who just happens to be in a position to aid Fleming's escape. Almost from the beginning, in fact, this novel is plagued by serious problems of credibility. Moreover, Butler, whose recent works have been far less graceful than his Alleys of Eden debut (1981), arranges long, dreadfully labored scenes of doppleganger-ish dialogue, with Fleming talking to Fleming. And though the descriptions of Saigon in the last tense days of the war have an exhausted, ruined poetry to them, Capt. Fleming's soul-journey is over-pregnant with a whispery anguish that never firms into a believable dilemma.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Knopf