STARLIGHT by Scott Ely
Kirkus Star


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Powerful, imaginative Vietnam war novel, in which newcomer Ely has fused gritty combat detail with supernatural elements. Time: circa 1970. Place: a beleaguered American firebase in NVA territory near the Laotian border. A chopper arrives bearing Tom Light, a phenomenally successful sniper who is also jinxed: troops who go out with him don't survive. To forestall a mutiny, the CO, Major Hale, allows Light only one night on base before returning him to the jungle to work alone. Light makes a deal with Hale's radio man, Jackson, the protagonist: Light will keep him alive while Jackson will write his letters home. At once, Jackson finds relief from his gnawing fear and hyperventilation. As Light sleeps, he examines the starlight scope on his rifle. The word is that Light can see who will die there, and maybe even raise the dead with it. At any rate, Light does a fine job picking off NVA, even taking care of the Tiger (an NVA sniper as feared as Light himself) and a troublesome Buddhist monk. Then Light claims that the monk's power to raise the dead has been transferred to him; he has moved beyond killing, he will travel to an abandoned city in Laos. A dead soldier appears before Jackson, who concludes they have both gone crazy. The base is evacuated and the men move into Laos on what becomes a death march. Light reappears to pluck Jackson from the final carnage; and in a surreal ending, the men now more spirit than flesh, Jackson begins his long journey home while Light stays in Laos. Ely's purpose is to show how a belief in the supernatural becomes a natural last refuge for his doomed, burnt-out soldiers; out of their plight he has coaxed one more compelling version of the war. He has not fully integrated the mythic figure of Light (and his starlight scope) into the stop/line, but no matter; this anatomy of terror is a fine, disciplined achievement.

Pub Date: April 6th, 1987
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson