FATHER OF THE MAN

By Robert Mooney

Pantheon. 228 pp. $23

This is a first novel. It's also a first novel by a college creative writing professor. That's two potential strikes against Father of the Man, by Robert Mooney of Washington College on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Happily, Mooney -- not to belabor the metaphor, but after all we're in the realm of creative writing here -- did not strike out. His maiden literary effort is a well-crafted, ambitious tale that melds serious writing with the conventions of the thriller.

The plot, in a nutshell, deals with the quest of a seriously emotionally troubled man, Dutch Potter, to come to terms with his beloved only son's disappearance in the Vietnam War. The time is 1982; the place, Binghamton, N.Y. -- a city in which Mooney once lived and where he earned his advanced writing degrees.

Dutch is a city bus driver. Dutch is not a happy man. Early in the novel it becomes apparent that he has a classic case of post-traumatic stress disorder. It stems from his horrific World War II experiences, which included storming the beach at Normandy on D-Day. Dutch comes home to his wife and young son after the war "a different man," Mooney notes, "more introspective, inwardly less sure of things but outwardly more abrupt."

He quickly turns to drink. He turns away from his wife. He drifts from job to job. He is not exactly the ideal father to his son and three daughters. As the years go by, but especially after his son goes missing in Vietnam, Dutch gets worse. He continues to drink too much. He treats his wife like dirt. He gets into trouble at work. He has a nervous breakdown. All the while, he exhibits what can only be described as paranoid behavior aimed at the government's handling of his son's missing-in-action case.

What sends Dutch over the edge is, of all things, a movie. Mooney never identifies the movie by title, but its plot contains elements of the cartoonish mid-'80s "Rambo" and Chuck Norris "Missing in Action" films. In this case, a U.S. Army colonel fights his way into post-war Vietnam with a group of like-minded men of action to liberate his POW son. Dutch watches the movie over and over again. His obsession with the film exacerbates his emotional problems and solidifies his mission in life: to fight against the plot by Uncle Sam and the Vietnamese communists to keep his son prisoner.

One morning, Dutch dresses up in his World War II uniform, arms himself with his 1940s weapons and hijacks his own city bus. He ends up at the bottom of a ravine in north central Pennsylvania after he loses control of the bus and is seriously injured -- but not enough to foil his hostage-taking plan. He gains enough control to demand that the government turn over his long-missing son in exchange for freeing his seven innocent civilian prisoners.

Mooney tells his story well. He starts off with an intense, closely observed personality sketch of Dutch and his buddies in England just before D-Day. In the body of the novel, Mooney uses cleverly interlaced flashbacks to give us a full picture of Dutch and those closest to him. He also fully develops the characters of several of the hostages, including a working-class black woman, a white male lawyer, an emotionally fragile widow and a disturbed teen-age boy with skinhead tendencies.

The hostage scenes are particularly well done -- full of high drama and surprises, all falling within standard hostage-drama guidelines. There is, for example, a head negotiating cop who keeps Dutch talking, asks him constantly to release the hostages, and all the while has a plan for ending the drama peacefully -- or, if necessary, violently. It also includes Dutch's carefully thought-out demands and his evolving plans for having those demands met. Mooney also includes detailed stories of the hostages, who find themselves examining their lives and the meaning of life as they contemplate the possibility that Dutch will blow them up with his vintage hand grenade.

What does not work quite so well are the sometimes overwritten character sketches Mooney inserts throughout the story. They bog it down more than they accelerate it. Mooney also has a tendency to explain too much about some secondary characters.

In the end, though, Father of the Man satisfies. The plot is clever and riveting. The climax is surprising and believable. The characters are well drawn. The literary allusions are kept to a minimum. (Dutch studies The Odyssey, the ultimate coming-home-from-war story; someone compares him to King Lear.) This novel is a solid two-base hit. We're not talking walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, but this effort should put Robert Mooney in the running for rookie of the year. *

Marc Leepson is book editor and columnist for the VVA Veteran, the newspaper published by Vietnam Veterans of America. His latest book is "Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House That Jefferson Built."