A Dangerous Friend

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The narrator of A DANGEROUS FRIEND, a consular officer who soon disappears from the text, characterizes it as “the story of one man with a bad conscience and another with no conscience.” Sydney Parade, who abandons his wife and child in order to extend the blessings of democracy to Southeast Asia, is the one with a bad conscience, and Dicky Rostok, his opportunistic boss in the Llewellyn Group, a small civilian agency created to help win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, is the one with none.

It is Sydney who is called “a dangerous friend,” but the epithet applies as well to all the Americans who come to Vietnam out of altruistic impulses and leave it in shambles. The year is 1965, and, amid the escalation of conflict, American idealists still believe that they can avert catastrophe by building roads, schools, and hospitals. Claude and Dede Armand still believe that they can run their rubber plantation while remaining aloof from war.

Like Joseph Conrad, whose fiction he explicitly invokes, Ward Just is most intent on examining how good intentions yield calamitous results. Aside from a mission to retrieve a captured American officer, his spare novel, written in exquisitely controlled prose, is thin on incident. But it is rich in its evocation of time and place and in its reflections on the myopia of benevolence.