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'A Dangerous Friend' by Ward Just

Blind idealism proves to be ‘A Dangerous Friend’

Friday, September 03, 1999

By Robert Peluso


A Dangerous Friend

By Ward Just

Houghton Mifflin


United States foreign policy has always been a rather strange brew of isolationism and intervention. Famous at times for our refusal to get involved in the workings of other countries, we can be equally notorious for our missionary zeal.

There is no lack of evidence for the hodgepodge of policy that reveals our conflicting attitudes, but perhaps the one situation that puts them into sharpest perspective is Vietnam, the setting of Ward Just’s 12th novel.

A spellbinding tale about our penchant for spreading the good word about democratic institutions, Just’s new novel bears the same keen interest in power, politics and personalities that defines many of his other books, such as “Jack Gance” and “Echo House,” which was a National Book Award finalist. And, as he has done in the past, Just once again shows how he can bring urgency and impact to large sociopolitical issues by rendering them as traits of individual characters.

This novel opens as a frame tale narrated by an unnamed “junior consular official” who, in the tradition of Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, brings a cool moral assessment to the events he is about to relate.

In fact, with its many references and parallels to Conrad and with its collision between the young, idealistic Sydney Parade and the unscrupulous and warped Dicky Rostock, “A Dangerous Friend” strongly hints at a modern “Heart of Darkness.”

Rostock is a man “with no conscience” who is in charge of the project to install American values in Vietnam -- and he does so at any cost. “We’re practicing salvation, Syd,” Rostock tells Parade, “not in the hereafter but in the here and now.”

As the story unfolds, we see more and more clearly that Rostock’s idea of salvation, much like Conrad’s Kurtz, quite literally involves exterminating innocent villagers.

Parade is a brash and self-confident idealist who is such an ardent supporter of “the effort,” as Just calls the attempt to Americanize Asia, that he willingly swallows Rostock’s rant. Sharing an obscene self-righteousness with Rostock, Parade easily agrees with the view that the war in Vietnam is “everyone’s adventure.”

Gradually, however, as Parade understands what is happening around him, he grows increasingly uneasy with his idealism, finally seeing the danger of people like Rostock -- and himself.

Parade’s moment of recognition occurs when Capt. Smalley, an American pilot and the son of a congressman, is downed in enemy territory. Like Rostock, who is fearful that there will be a political backlash with consequences for “the effort,” Parade tries to get information about the pilot and his crew. He eventually succeeds when he receives a map identifying the pilot’s whereabouts in a village.

Smalley is brought back to safety, and the problem appears to be resolved. But like everything else in Vietnam, this simple conclusion turns murky when Rostock, having promised Parade he would not retaliate, orders the destruction of the village where Smalley was found -- even though the villagers had nothing to do with Smalley’s capture.

Parade is stunned. He had sought to be “a witness” to the making of a glorious world history and to America’s heroic role in it. Ironically, he has witnessed an evolving world history for which his ideals have left him unprepared.

As one character puts it, Parade is “a man eager to learn but often attracted to the wrong lessons.” Parade returns to America demoralized and chastened.

There are no real winners in “A Dangerous Friend,” only sides to be taken. And although Just does arrive at a strong sanction of our actions in Vietnam, he also suggests a kind of inevitability to them.

Using Vietnam to show what constitutes us as a nation, Just suggests that our addiction to ideals will continue to produce people like Dicky Rostock, whose uncompromising drive to realize those ideals ultimately corrupts and distorts them.

By cautioning us to think more strenuously about the purpose our ideals are serving before we promulgate them, Just suggests that we might avoid the predicament Rostock finds himself in when he says, “It’s information we’re after and I’m not even certain what information, what it is that I need to know.”

Rostock of course never does find out what he needs to know in order to act responsibly in the international arena, but Just’s novel at least gives the rest of us a chance to try.

Robert Peluso is a free-lance writer based in Pittsburgh.

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