HEARTS IN ATLANTIS

By Stephen King

Scribner. 522 pp. $28

Reviewed by Marc Leepson

In Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King uses his unique literary voice to address the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

Sort of. The book is composed -- in King's publisher's words -- of five "interconnected, sequential narratives." That's publisher-speak for a not atypical Stephen King fictional smorgasbord. The first narrative, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," is a 254-page novel that takes place in 1960. It's the story of an eventful episode in the life of an 11-year-old boy in suburban Connecticut. The Vietnam War is less than a shadow in this bloated, growing-up tale suffused with a large dose of horror fantasy.

Next comes "Hearts in Atlantis," a long (154-page) novella set on the University of Maine campus in 1966. This first-person story is by far the most polished and effective component of the book. In it, King expertly recreates the angst-ridden world of college freshman Pete Riley (like King, a smart U. of Maine working-class scholarship student) and his circle of friends.

The Vietnam War shadows everything Pete and his buddies do. In Pete's case, that includes his up-and-down relationship with Carol Gerber, a character who appears in all five of the book's narratives. Carol is a savvy, good-hearted young woman from an emotionally and financially impoverished background who gets involved with the violent fringe of the student antiwar movement.

King is at his best in sketching characters such as Pete and Carol. He invests them with the conflicts, contradictions and varying shades of gray that color the difficult decisions they make about school, matters of the heart, the draft and the war. Pete, Carol and the other college students -- even the artlessly named bad boy, Ronnie Malenfant -- are anything but the one-dimensional stereotypes often found in novels of the '60s.

Speaking of stereotypes, the next narrative, "Blind Willie," a long (46-page) short story, features one of the least believable fictional screwed-up Vietnam veterans of all time. The title character, a childhood friend of Carol's, lives a truly unbelievable triple life. He commutes from the suburbs to New York City every workday dressed as a successful business executive. Within minutes after arriving at his elaborately fake office, Willie evolves into an African-American blue-collar worker. Then he morphs into a phony blind street beggar who rakes in four figures a day in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral by preying on people's pity for a helpless Vietnam vet.

Willie was abused as a child, and he had a horrific tour in Vietnam. He seems to have genuine regret for taking part in the gang beating of Carol Gerber when he was a kid. But that's as far as King goes in endowing him with anything approaching a full characterization. What we get, in the end, is a seriously deluded, over-the-top Vietnam veteran caricature from hell.

Which brings us to the next narrative, "Why We're in Vietnam," another long (44-page) short story filled to overflowing with detailed descriptions of blood-drenched Vietnam War atrocities and the minutely described, tortuous war flashbacks of Vietnam vet John Sullivan, Carol Gerber's former boyfriend. John witnesses unspeakable brutality in the war and comes home with severe physical wounds and an irreparably damaged psyche.

King sprinkles this story with a stream of lame generalizations about the sad state of the nation's Vietnam veterans. About Vietnam vets dying of "cancer or drugs or suicide." About vets who are "raving alcoholics" or "drug addicts" or vets, who, as John says, "beat their wives, beat their kids, beat their [expletive] dogs." There is some sarcasm here. And there's no denying that too many Vietnam veterans continue to suffer emotionally and physically. However, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans, including those who experienced combat at its worst, have adjusted well to life back home. That fact is sure to be lost on the overwhelming majority of the millions of Stephen King fans who will read this book and come away with a false picture of those who served in the Vietnam War.

Marc Leepson is book editor and columnist for the VVA Veteran, the newspaper published by Vietnam Veterans of America.