Military Matters

TOM GERVASI urgently wants to get the message out. The Reagan administration, he charges, has been lying about the Soviet military threat for the past seven years. To prove his point, he's taken Soviet Military Power -- a document issued each year by the Pentagon to advance its arguments for more money and more weapons -- and published an "annotated and corrected" version.

Military matters are in Gervasi's blood. He dictated many of his annotations from memory. He was forced to: he had severely limited use of his limbs. Gervasi is suffering from metal poisoning, the result of another side of his fascination with weaponry. The 1,500 toy soldiers he had lovingly built over the years have also, it seems, gotten into his blood.

"All my regiments of neatly uniformed little men caused me a certain amount of damage," Gervasi, 50, says ruefully. "I'm not sure how many collectors have this intensive an exposure, but I used to get obsessive about it. I wouldn't just do one. I would make 20 or 30."

He never thought of using a mask or a fan, but then one day in 1985 his hands started getting weak. When his blood was tested, the doctors found "enormous quantities" of lead, mercury and aluminum.

"There isn't really any treatment except to just remove yourself from the source," Gervasi says. "They think that once it's out of my system, I will improve. Time will tell." At least, he says, his condition seems to have stabilized.

In the meantime, his muscles don't work very well. He uses a wheelchair, and at night, when he's asleep, a respirator pushes air into his lungs. "When I'm lying down," he says matter-of-factly, "it's harder to breathe."

The annotation of Soviet Military Power is being published this month by Vintage. The most recent Pentagon edition came out in May; Gervasi, even with his physical limitations, was finished with his version in six months. The book's "producer," Bob Adelman, is still amazed. "If you were facing the kind of ultimate considerations that he was," he wonders, "is this how you would spend your time? I'd be at a cafe' in Paris. But his moral commitment and concern are very great."

Gervasi, who lives in Richmond, wrote Arsenal of Democracy in 1978 and The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy eight years later. His work has been dismissed as pro-Soviet propaganda and hailed as the definitive truth. "Objectivity is a complete myth," he notes. "We all have to make up our minds when presented with a bunch of facts."

For much of his working life, he was in book publishing. Gradually, he began editing greater numbers of books on military subjects. "Weapons always fascinated me because they seemed a combination of enormous intelligence and skill, but were also so lethal," he says. "At the same time we were using our ingenuity to its maximum, we were creating a kind of evil that ran out of control."

If there's a ground zero for Gervasi's most recent effort, it would be the Pentagon Bookstore, which is accessible only to those with military or government I.D.s. The shop's military buyer, Teri Fahls, reports that the title is doing well, especially given "the statement on the cover about 'the Pentagon's propaganda document.' When I saw that, I thought, 'Oh, boy, if someone up there doesn't like this, no one will dare to be seen with it.' But it hasn't worked that way." The store has sold 25 copies in less than a week, she says, "which is a lot."

Young Writers at Work

WRITE ABOUT what you know," young writers are taught, and so there's been a recent flood of first novels and story collections dealing with cocaine, angst, boredom and writing itself -- minimalist fiction about nothing at all, really. A first novel coming in April from a very young writer is garnering a good deal of advance attention by reversing all those expectations.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the exuberant tale of a college student's confused summer, is by 24-year-old Michael Chabon. Morrow bought the rights in competition with nine other houses for $155,000 -- described as the most ever paid for a literary first novel, and about 20 times what most first novelists receive. A dozen foreign countries are kicking in another $250,000. It's been optioned for the movies, yielding another hefty chunk of cash. There's a promotional tour to eight cities and a $100,000 advertising budget. Pretty nice for a guy who, after an accident with his girlfriend's car last year, was reduced to getting around by bus.

Is this book being overhyped? Can too much money and publicity -- even for a good book -- hurt a new novelist? Why can't this happen to me? These are some of the questions that are animating Chabon's peers as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh heads for the bookstores.

"That amount of monetary success represents not only the merits of the book, but certain factors that are more or less irrational," says MacDonald Harris, who was Chabon's teacher at the University of California-Irvine writing program and got him an agent. "This is connected to the publishing world's search for the next youth culture writer, which has been going on ever since Salinger."

Harris has published 13 novels himself. Many of them have been well received critically, but there have been no movie deals and few paperback sales. "Michael's sale made many people furious with jealousy," he says. "I know one who took to bed. I try not to feel that way. Naturally, sometimes when I'm trying to go to sleep at night, I think, 'Why couldn't it be me?' That's a human reaction, just as you flinch when someone hits you on the shoulder. But if you're a decent person, you put your arm around him and say, 'Isn't that great?' In the case of Michael, it's easy to do that, because he's so lacking in egocentricity."

Everyone agrees: It couldn't have happened to a nicer, more talented guy. Chabon -- who grew up in Rockville and Columbia, Md., and went to the University of Pittsburgh -- has sufficient reserves of modesty to keep his feet on the ground and his fingers on the typewriter. "Backlash is inevitable," he says, "but I'm my own worst critic." The secret, he says, is to survive -- "to write your third, fourth or fifth novel. If you keep producing, and enough novels and years go by . . . I hope by my third or fourth novel, it won't matter what age I am, or how much I get paid."

Meanwhile, one thing he has going for him is that the book is not autobiographical. "Nothing that happens in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh ever happened to me," the author asserts. In other words, it's a real work of fiction.

The same is true of Night Over Day Over Night, a first novel by 23-year-old Paul Watkins coming from Knopf in March. The hoopla is less here, and the first printing modest. What is getting the attention is the author's relative youth compared with the ambitious material being tackled -- the story of a 17-year-old German boy who joins the SS in 1944. His editor, the highly regarded Elisabeth Sifton, says: "I have never seen a book remotely like this -- in its daring and sheer powerful writing -- from so young a writer."

Watkins, whose parents are English and who was educated in both England and the States, walked across the World War I battlefields at age 15, and lived in Germany when he was the same age as his protagonist. Like Chabon, he has also done time in a writing program -- he's now a graduate fellow at Syracuse.

Neither of these authors seems the type who would have been drawn to a writing school 10 or 15 years ago. MacDonald Harris, Chabon's teacher, sees the omnipresence of the university programs -- he estimates nine out of 10 young writers under 40 have had some kind of contact with them -- as a mixed blessing.

"There are a lot more writing programs than there used to be, and they're taking in people who are not qualified," he says. "It's easy to take a fairly intelligent English major and in two years train him to write smooth, transparent fiction about trivial problems and trivial people. On the other hand, it's inevitable if you now have 10,000 people doing graduate work in writing, you're going to turn something up."

Philosopher's Musings

THE PHILOSOPHER William James does not seem to have approached earthquakes with the proper degree of respect. As his Stanford University house began to waggle at the beginning of the Big One -- the San Francisco upheaval of 1906 -- James' emotions consisted wholly of "glee and admiration." He was especially thrilled by the way "the frail little wooden house could hold itself together in spite of such a shaking."

James promptly went off to the city to see the scene of the disaster. Here, also, his report confounds expectations: " . . . every one, to some degree, was suffering, and one's private miseries were merged in the vast general sum of privation and in the all-absorbing practical problem of general recuperation. The cheerfulness, or, at any rate, the steadfastness of tone, was universal."

The essay, "On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake," is unusually timely in light of the recent concern among Californians that the next Big One will hit at any moment. But it's only one of many selections in William James: Writings 1902-1910, the newly published 38th entry in the Library of America. Included in the 1,379-page volume are five books -- including Pragmatism and its sequel, The Meaning of Truth, and James' masterwork, The Varieties of Religious Experience -- and 19 essays.

Later this year, the Library is publishing two projects that are bound to receive wide attention. During the summer, the Collected Works of Flannery O'Connor will be issued. The 1,350-page volume will feature Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, her two novels; her three collections of stories; selected essays; and letters, some of them previously unpublished. Not a bad deal for $27.50. And this fall, as part of the centennial of Eugene O'Neill's birth, a three-volume collection of his complete plays will be published.