LOST ARMIES

By Wayne Karlin

Henry Holt. 150 pp. $15.95

The first wave of serious Vietnam war novels burst out of the word processors of ex-GIs about 10 years ago. Virtually every one of those books told the story of a middle-class apolitical kid who got sucked into the worst of Vietnam jungle combat, saw firsthand the fruitlessness of that particularly dirty little war, and then came home a changed man trying to make sense of what had happened.

We are now at the beginning of a second wave of Vietnam war novels. These books typically are set in the present, back home in the United States. The naive soldier has been replaced by a man on the cusp of middle age who's still trying to come to grips with his Vietnam experience. The hero usually is grappling with emotional problems, ranging from the serious to the inconvenient -- from drug and/or alcohol addiction to a cranky personality.

A very large percentage of the Vietnam novels in both categories are mediocre at best. They tend to be burdened with cliche'd characters, trite dialogue, unimaginative plots and dull, unevocative writing. The novels that have been appearing in the last few years tend to focus on the "walking time-bomb" vet -- a guy haunted by his days in the jungle. There's usually violence involved, both in the present time and in the inevitable flashbacks.

Only a precious few of these novels have dealt with the very real psychological problems of Vietnam veterans without sensationalizing the issue or stereotyping the troubled vet. "Lost Armies" by Wayne Karlin fits squarely in this category.

Karlin is a former Marine who flew helicopters in Vietnam. He has written one other novel, "Crossover," and a batch of short stories. In "Lost Armies" he succeeds where other vet-novelists have failed, primarily because he attacks with more ammunition. Where others overdescribe and label, Karlin uses words to evoke people and places. Where others use mundane language, Karlin peppers his narrative with poetic word portraits. Where others present cardboard, one-dimensional characters, Karlin draws complex, hard-to-classify ones.

"Lost Armies" tells the story of Wheeler, an emotionally fragile former Marine who manages to eke out a living, maintain his own household and maintain relatively normal personal relationships. He gets intimately involved with a community of South Vietnamese refugees living in his small town on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

It seems that the community is being terrorized by a series of deer mutilations. Some psychopath is killing deer, cutting out their tongues and depositing the corpses near the Vietnamese trailer camp. Suspicion immediately falls on Wheeler's old friend and war buddy, Dennis. The local police chief and the friendly newspaper editor enlist Wheeler, a former journalist, to help track Dennis down.

The plot moves fitfully toward the inevitable surprise ending. Along the way Karlin shows off a distinctive, biting writing style that works particularly well when he describes the watery landscape of the Eastern Shore and the emotional landscape of Wheeler's psyche.

Another strength of the book is Karlin's familiarity with some aspects of Vietnamese culture and language. Two of the book's major characters are South Vietnamese exiles -- Dennis' former girlfriend Xuan, and Do, her loose cannon of a brother. Plus the author avoids the cliche'd barmaids, crocked politicians, self-serving generals or cunning VC you find in other Vietnam novels. His Vietnamese are more complicated, and also more true to life.

"Lost Armies" is far from perfect. The main problem is Karlin's attempt to add surreal elements to the plot. That's a mistake. His story is strange enough without adding ghosts. There's also a stylistic problem: the intermittent use of purposely ambiguous passages that are meant to give the reader a glimpse inside Xuan's head. These serve only to murk things up, rather than to illuminate. Plus the ending is anything but surprising.

Still, these are relatively minor faults. Wayne Karlin deserves to be ranked among the better chroniclers in fiction of the Vietnam war and its aftermath.

The reviewer is a Washington writer.