MCCAMPBELL'S WAR. By Robert Herring. Viking. 245 pp. $16.95 -- OVERTONES, landscapes and ambiguous symbols are major attractions in this exquisitely written novel about an old man's heroic but ultimately futile effort to stop the march of what is called "progress." Proffit McCampbell is a Tennessee mountaineer whose only joy or function is to tend a little mountaintop cemetery that holds the bones of his ancestors. Progress -- his enemy -- is embodied in a highway being blasted through the Great Smoky mountains and heading straight for the cemetery.
The last half of the book, in which he wages a one-man guerrilla war against bulldozers, graders and fork lifts (not to mention a whole police force and a hired assassin), achieves a curious epic glory. But the heavy machines are not the real menace; they would scar the mountain but leave it substantially intact. The real problem of the highway is that it will make easy things that should be left difficult; it will give access to things that should be sheltered. McCampbell is a prophet of the old way of living: hard in all senses of the word -- difficult and solid.
The future and its corruptions are embodied in the hordes of tourists who have already begun to contaminate the mountain and in a gang of juvenile delinquents who use Indian names and prey on the tourists. McCampbell can stop the machines for a while, but nothing can stop the tourists. With the gang, his success is ambiguous; he humiliates the leader and his example may inspire one young member to find a better life -- but the ecological forces that breed such gangs are still in place at the novel's end.
THE LEGACY OF LADYSMITH. By John Kenny Crane. Linden/Simon and Schuster. 398 pp. $17.95 -- IN this novel about a writer, an editor plays a key role: a bright, pretty but tough-minded young redhead named Ann Macgregor, who finally becomes the bedmate of the emotionally bruised hero, Jason Glass. Unfortunately, she is the only sign of an editor anywhere in the book.
The Legacy of Ladysmith could have been an absorbing novel at about half its length. Instead, it is a compendium of the pathologies of unedited prose and, as such, fascinating reading for specialists. Readers who care to do the editor's work can carve out an interesting tale, slicing away descriptions of railroad stations, gratuitous sex scenes, repetitious passages and an ending straight out of Gothic fiction. But that should have been done, once and for all, before it got into print.
The plot involves curious interactions between time past and time present, as Glass tries to piece together the biography of an unsung figure of the Boer War, a heroic doctor who turns out (as the data accumulate) to have been less than heroic and more than a doctor. The interaction of this story with the biographer's private life and the saga of the hero's family (a minor Scottish clan that gets more minor with each generation) could have been fascinating if the book had been organized with more discipline. Crane's prose is lucid but unexciting.
THE GOLDEN MILE. By John Sherlock. Viking. 465 pp. $17.95 -- UNLIKE Crane's book, Sherlock's is probably headed straight for the best seller lists, for various clinically interesting reasons that begin with the title and ramify into the most minute details. For openers, Crane has chosen a more fashionable war than the Boer, World War II, for his historic background. And he uses one of its most dramatic episodes -- the battle in the Warsaw Ghetto -- as the springboard for his improbable, coincidence-ridden but opulent tale.
The word "Golden" in the title hints that the story will be about wealth, and it is. Underlying the whole tangled plot is a treasure: jewels given to the Jewish underground fighters and smuggled out of the ghetto in the heroic last days of resistance. The treasure never reaches the Swiss bank to which it was headed, and somebody wonders why. Forty years later, he is still wondering, and the question drives him to graphically described violence. There are no real heroes in the book, but four heroines; three of them escape the ghetto with the shipment of jewels, and the fourth is born during the long, dangerous trek to freedom. All have interesting later lives. One becomes the owner of an art gallery on Fifth Avenue, another a high-priced courtesan in Paris, the third the mistress of a communist guerrilla leader in Malaya and the fourth (the youngest) a whiz at making money in the stock market and real estate deals. You pick your favorite fantasy and there is something like it somewhere in this sprawling volume.
There is sex galore, but in The Golden Mile it does not seem like an interruption of more serious business. That's because the book has nothing serious to talk about. Violence is pervasive but artfully distributed, covered with layers of smooth, readable prose and set forth against exotic backgrounds that range from Warsaw to Singapore. In the final violent scene, a crazed would-be assassin discovers at the last minute that he has been horribly mistaken, clutches to his chest a live hand grenade, leaps from the balcony of a 35th-floor multimillion-dollar penthouse on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and explodes, leaving "a cloud of roiling smoke midway between the balcony and the sidewalk below." He is falling toward the fabled "Golden Mile" that gave the book its catchy title and otherwise has little to do with it.
Some people may prefer Crane's honest awkwardness (though his attempts to drag in best-seller cliche's are infuriating). But most prospective purchasers will prefer Sherlock's skilled, empty manipulation of symbols, prose and readers. That is their problem.
IMAGES. By Cara Saylor Polk. St. Martin's. 359 pp. $17.95 -- MARLENA Williams, still looking good in her early forties, is the hostess of Later. . . on IBS, a talk show on the International Broadcasting System. She has enjoyed the love of several good men (as well as the other kind), and now, rich and famous, she is free to look around for yet another. But is she happy? Would she be in a novel if she were? She can't help thinking about the one who got away, wondering whether she has sacrificed too much while clawing her way to the top.
Forget about the Hollywood-cute happy ending and the too-long, rather unbelievable episode where Marlena becomes the playmate of a Maryland state senator who has links to organized crime. There is, otherwise, a lot of good material in this saga of an ambitious young lady who uses everything she has to get to where she (ambivalently) wants to be. Cara Saylor Polk, a television insider and the wife of an NBC Washington correspondent, knows the atmosphere, the tensions, the conversational flow and deadline pressures of a television newsroom. She chronicles the training of a young reporter with fine accuracy, and she gives touching new dimensions to the not unfamiliar story of an ambitious young career woman who finds herself unexpectedly in bed with her boss. But when Marlena grows up, sacrifices her marriage and makes her solitary sprint for the big time, the characters lose their depth and the novel begins to resemble the television medium that is its subject.