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A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just
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A Dangerous Friend (1999)

by Ward Just

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Another winner from Ward Just, who has become one of my favorite authors. A DANGEROUS FRIEND is the eighth (I just checked) Just novel I have read in the past several years, and I have yet to find a clinker. I've enjoyed every one of them.

In A DANGEROUS FRIEND (1999) Just once again visited Vietnam for his setting, which no longer surprises me, since Just spent eighteen months in Vietnam back in the mid-sixties as a young journalist, an experience which has left a mark on him. And although he was not a combatant, he was even wounded during his tour there. His first book was in fact a non-fiction work, TO WHAT END (1968), a collection of essays which questioned the U.S. presence in Vietnam. And his second novel titled STRINGER, was also set in Vietnam. And just a few years ago, another novel, AMERICAN ROMANTIC, turned once again upon a long-ago experience in that same war.

This time young Sydney Parade is a middle manager in an aid organization, the Llewellyn Group, trying to "win hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. His volunteering for this assignment has wrecked his marriage and set him adrift in a milieu he has no real grasp on. He befriends a French expatriate rubber plantation boss, married to an American woman - a couple who are trying to "live between the lines" of a quickly escalating war. An army airborne captain is captured by the Viet Cong and Sydney is unwillingly drawn into a dangerous plan to help secure his release. His boss with the aid group is ambitious, unscrupulous and untrustworthy, complicating things further.

As in all of Just's books, characters are key - much more important than plot, in fact, and the characters here are very finely drawn. There are Sydney, Rostok (his boss), Claude (the French rubber planter) and his American wife Dede, and Pablo (an old Asian hand who works with Sydney), along with several secondary characters - all of them key to this tale of intrigue and betrayal in the early years of the Vietnam war.

I am sure Just is a devotee of Graham Greene, and that THE QUIET AMERICAN has been a kind of bible to him. One cannot help but make this connection reading this book. But the fictional world of Ward Just is a country all its own. He is a master at what he does. I've probably already said this about his other books I've read, but here it is again. I loved this book. Very highly recommended.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
  TimBazzett | Oct 13, 2017 |
Though Ward Just has distinguished himself as a journalist, he has also produced an impressive body of fiction. As a novelist, he has been compared favorably with Ernest Hemingway. Much of his work centers around war—portrayed by the keen eye of a newsman—as is often true of Hemingway; however, his characters and their settings would be out of place in most Hemingway-like fiction due to their affluence and jaded sophistication. The primary criticism of Just's work is that his action is slow and plodding. Although his characters are articulate and witty, they often do just sit and talk, especially in his novel of Washington during Vietnam, In the City of Fear.
Just's unnamed narrator (a device reminiscent of Conrad) insists that in describing Sydney Parade's experiences he is not telling a war story, and indeed ''A Dangerous Friend'' contains little violence. Menace is conveyed through glimpses of Vietcong guerrillas moving at night on black bicycles, of an American officer alone in a Vietnamese village, of blood on the sleeve of a suit. Battle scenes are described obliquely through rumors and field reports discussed around conference tables, their effects hinted at on slips of paper passed anonymously in exclusive Saigon restaurants. Just has a veteran war reporter's eye for the telling detail -- light from phosphorus flares ''so fierce you could see it with closed eyelids'' -- and a reporter's skepticism about his Government's stated objectives. his central character retraces the route his Western predecessors took, stopping in Paris on the way to Saigon, Just begins to establish a convincing allegorical dimension to the novel. We learned from the French, he seems to suggest -- and, then again, we didn't. To young political scientists like Sydney, the success of the Vietcong defies military and political logic: ''We had so much and they had so little; our 19-year-olds were supported by an arsenal beyond the imagination of the guerrillas facing them.''

In A Dangerous Friend, Just pictured America on the brink of full commitment to the Vietnam War in 1965. Through the eyes of a misguided civil servant, the book superficially depicts with a bit of hindsight the nation's descent down the slippery slope to folly. The plot eventually turns on the fate of a captured American captain who is also the nephew of a Congressman. The captain was last seen in the Xuan Loc sector near Plantation Louvet, which is managed by a Frenchman named Claude Armand and his American-born wife, Dede. The Armands are living a premodern idyll in an ''ambiance reminiscent of Winnetka, if Winnetka were tropical.'' They have little sympathy for the Americans and want desperately to remain neutral, but the Llewellyn Group has other plans. The ultimate result of this episode does not reflect well on the Americans.
As in his previous novels (the National Book Award finalist ''Echo House'' foremost among them), Just uses a somewhat complex network of imagery that leads the reader to see the tragedy of Vietnam in ways that throw into high relief the conflicted array of Vietnamese, French and American interests. The most graphic metaphors include a torture victim and the stillborn Vietnamese children of French and American parents. More subtle is the Panama hat that comes to represent not only the country's climate but the customs and dreams of the Vietnamese, as filtered through the lives of a Vietnamese woman and her American husband, a member of the Llewellyn Group who, in the view of his colleagues, ''had lived in Vietnam for too long and had lost perspective.'' Though his prose occasionally betrays a reporter's fact-laden unwieldiness and a weakness for cliches, he succeeds in evoking the dense, tactile weave of life in country circa 1965. But the author, in spite of the complexity of the novel, is always clear where his sympathy lies. Not only the episode of the downed flyer, but the whole structure of the novel is set up to support a view that is dependent on retrospective knowledge that no one, least of all the Americans involved, could have had at the time. This left me with the feeling that this novel, while well written, had a facile plot that weakened the book's message. ( )
  jwhenderson | Sep 20, 2012 |
4739. A Dangerous Friend, by Ward Just (read 16 Aug 2010) This novel shows that its author, who was a war correspondent in Vietnam, has a perceptive and sure grasp of life during the war. . An American goes to Vietnam as a civilian to help win "hearts and minds" of the people. He seeks to save a captured American and gets help from an American and her French husband living in Vietnam--with dire consequences. Informative and authentic, but sad, as the war was, towards the end interest-holding. A well-wrought novel, and tells apparent truth though fiction. ( )
  Schmerguls | Aug 16, 2010 |
A Dangerous Friend takes the reader to Vietnam, 1965. Sydney Parade is a man bored with his Connecticut life. In search of something bigger than himself he leaves his wife and daughter for the jungles of Saigon. While his intention is to be part of a foreign-aid operation building bridges, administering agriculture education, and facilitating supply delivery, Sydney soon discovers war is war no matter which side you are on. The depths of conflict strike his moral heart and leave him struggling to survive any way that he can. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Dec 2, 2008 |
Greta book ( )
  tuesdaynext | Mar 27, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 061805670X, Paperback)

Ward Just, a former war correspondent, uses his intimate knowledge of Vietnam to advantage in this exploration of America's tangled relations with that small Southeast Asian country. Set in 1965, the last year that civilians were in control of foreign intervention, A Dangerous Friend chronicles the lives of a small band of aid workers who purport to administer financial and technical assistance to the Vietnamese; unknown to most, however, the Llewellyn Group is actually covertly linked to the Pentagon. Though told by a nameless narrator, the protagonist of this story is Sydney Parade, an idealistic American who abandons wife and child in order to help bring democracy to the third world:
We worked harder than we had ever worked in our lives, or would ever work again. We were drunk on work. Work was passion. We were in it for the long haul, and from the beginning we swam upstream.
Sydney arrives in Vietnam filled with altruistic purpose, but all too soon he finds himself up to his neck in dangerous intrigue. The head of the Llewellyn Group, Dicky Rostok, is trolling for information, and he uses Sydney's connections with a French planter and his American-born wife to further his own agenda. Despite the best of intentions, Sydney unwittingly becomes the source of information that will eventually lead to death, betrayal, and ruin. In A Dangerous Friend Ward Just conveys the depth of America's misunderstanding of the situation in Vietnam even as he illustrates how idealism unleavened by knowledge can be a perilous thing, indeed. --Alix Wilber

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:30 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

An idealistic political scientist abandons his family to bring progress to 1965 Vietnam, only to wreck havoc with people's lives. Sydney Parade of Connecticut is unaware that the foundation employing him is a front for the Pentagon. By the author of Echo House.… (more)

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