The Vietnam war was different from other American wars. The most visible difference was the makeup of the U.S. fighting force. Those who served in Vietnam by no means represented a cross section of American youth. The average GI was 19 years old. A lot of his buddies never finished high school. The nation's best and brightest stayed home.

In light of these demographics, one might assume that the Vietnam war never would produce a crop of soldier-novelists to match World War II's best--Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and James Jones. But like many other assumptions about Vietnam, this one does not stand up. Vietnam veterans have produced a number of outstanding war novels, including Josiah Bunting's "The Lionheads," Tim O'Brien's National Book Award-winning "Going After Cacciato" and James Webb's "Fields of Fire." Robert Olen Butler's "The Alleys of Eden" very nearly measures up to that select company.

Butler tells the story of antihero Clifford Wilkes, a one-time college radical who eventually becomes an intelligence officer in Vietnam. After taking part in a questioning session that results in the death of a suspected Viet Cong, Wilkes goes over the hill. He ends up living with a bar girl named Lanh in a small apartment in Saigon, whose alleys provide the book's title. Wilkes and Lanh stay in Saigon for four years.

The book opens during the last chaotic days before the final American pullout in late April 1975. In the early morning hours of April 30 Wilkes and Lanh decide to escape, and manage to scramble aboard one of the last helicopters out of the city. Wilkes eludes the military police, and settles into the underground life in San Francisco. He and Lanh are reunited outside Chicago.

The first half of "The Alleys of Eden" consists mostly of Butler's intense examination of Clifford Wilkes' mind. Like a microbiologist studying a laboratory specimen, Butler bores in on the details of Wilkes' past: his college days, his marriages, his father's death and the steps leading to desertion. Then Butler shifts into overdrive, providing an action-packed narrative on the escape from Saigon and the lovers' difficult adjustments living on the run in the United States.

Butler writes in an odd, jumpy style. He uses scores of run-on sentences; he takes many grammatical liberties. But curiously enough this style serves him well, and aptly conveys the intensity and confusion in Wilkes' mind. This passage describing Wilkes' feelings while he and Lanh are dining with two friends is a good example:

"Cliff's mind flailed about, he knew he should be as wide-eyed and alone as Lanh in the presence of these two people. These two didn't see what he was, they were blind to him . . . like the people passing on the street. They were cutting him loose, even now, cutting him loose in a subtle way--by not letting him keep his place apart."

Butler's writing style also works well in action sequences, such as the following description of Wilkes and Lanh fleeing through the streets of Saigon:

"Another empty street and they ran along the sidewalk for a short distance, their feet ground broken glass, a streetlight splashed upon them and Cliff felt exposed, in rifle sights, then they were in the dark, approaching a corner. He let himself listen and he heard the hammer of engines--perceptibly louder now--the choppers were still flying."

"The Alleys of Eden" has faults. For the first few pages, for example, the writing is awkward and cliche'-ridden (time "runs out"; the Americans "rush headlong" out of Vietnam). Although Butler makes effective use of flashbacks in most cases, at times the transitions are clumsily handled, and it becomes difficult to tell the present from the past.

But these faults only slightly diminish the book as a whole. Butler has created a fine first novel, and one of the best to use the Vietnam war as its main focus. His choice of main characters is bold and innovative. In most Vietnam war novels, American soldiers hold center stage; few of these books give more than cursory attention to Vietnamese characters. (There is one notable exception, Jonathan Rubin's "The Barking Deer," which deals with a tribe of Montagnards).

No other American Vietnam war novel provides a more thorough or accurate portrait of a Vietnamese woman forced by circumstances to work as a prostitute. James Webb in "Fields of Fire" does have a well-drawn Okinawan prostitute. But she is a minor character. Butler's Lanh is the book's co-protagonist, and she is depicted accurately and with insight.

While Lanh is a strong presence in the book, Cliff Wilkes is the main player. In Tim O'Brien's "Going After Cacciato," a group of GIs walks away from Vietnam. That AWOL journey takes place primarily in the mind of one character, and O'Brien's story soars into surrealism. Butler, on the other hand, tells a realistic tale. Wilkes' thoughts and fears are relentlessly true to life.

Butler's gamble in using a deserter and a prostitute to frame his story about Vietnam pays off. "Alleys of Eden" succeeds on several levels. It is painfully realistic. It is artfully written. It is a unique, haunting story that ultimately serves as a metaphor for the pain and suffering caused by this country's participation in the Vietnam war.