A short, impressionistic thriller about Vietnamese chickens come home to roost that has all the earmarks of a bad first novel: it's self-referential (the hero, like Karlin, did helicopter duty in Nam and is now a writer); self-indulgent (bits of poetry and first-person essay jammed into third-person narration); and overwritten (here, un-watered tomato plants are ""curved, graceful alien hands cupped in prayer for rain""). But this is Karlin's second novel, four years after a solid debut in the lean spy chiller, Crossover. What gives? An author who's heard the siren call of Meaningful Art, that's what--starting with hero Dennis Wheeler, Vietnam vet and failed journalist who's come home to the Maryland marshes to teach English to Vietnamese immigrants (""Asian ghosts"") as haunted by the war as he is. The spirit of the past takes on flesh when a series of mutilations--deer found dead with their tongues cut out--signals the probable return of Wheeler's boyhood pal Dennis Slagel, a burned-out vet who performed similar atrocities in Nam on villagers who betrayed him. Hired by a local paper to cover the mutilations, wheeler seeks Slagel--and new meaning in his own tired life--by digging up and airing out the past and its symbols: sifting through groups of bitter refugees, making uneasy peace with a childhood enemy of his and Slagel's, flashing-back to the last time he saw his old buddy, and, crucially, starting an affair with Slagel's ex-lover. It's she, Vietnamese-refugee Xuan, who breathes new energy into his soul even as he soothes the hurt in hers, and who offers the key to Slagel's whereabouts when she introduces wheeler to her brother, Tho--a man driven homicidally mad by having lost his soul in the war, and who draws Wheeler into a surrealistic showdown of blood revenge and expiation at novel's end. With its muddled yet obvious exploration of war's dark echo, this strained novel--despite a few nice touches, especially in limning the sad, secret ways of refugees--fades like yesterday's dream, proving a poor showing by an author who's done better.