(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Tom Light started out as a regular infantry soldier, but a curious pattern began to develop: The men who went out with him on patrol were invariably killed, leaving him as the lone survivor. As a result, no one wants to be on the same patrol with Light, so he is reassigned to duty as a solitary sniper. His long, black starlight scope, whose big end is six inches in diameter, is the kind used routinely to see and aim in the dark, but Light’s scope seems to possess the special power of predicting who will be killed in the future. While this is yet another reason not to associate with Light, the company radioman, Jackson, strikes up a friendship and soon the two of them have concocted a pact whereby Light will protect Jackson from injury using the magic scope.

Scott Ely describes several combat operations in detail, but the most interesting episode is Light’s campaign to kill an enemy sniper called “The Tiger,” an expert Vietcong sharpshooter who always kills with a single shot. In the climactic scene, the two of them maneuver and shoot in the dark; Light eventually outsmarts the Tiger with a booby trap that unleashes a deadly poisonous snake to attack and kill him.

The novel ends mysteriously. Jackson is severely wounded, but Ely then includes what seems to be a strange dream of death, in which Jackson appears to be uninjured and plans to board a fishing boat at Vung Tau and sail home. This episode is typical of the book’s shortcomings -- what is otherwise a good, somewhat routine war novel suffers occasionally from grandiose literary aspirations.

Everyday combat details are accurate and well drawn, which is not surprising as the author is a Vietnam veteran. Rotting jungle fatigues, white fungus growing under Jackson’s armpits, and the mutilation of corpses, including a booby-trapped severed human head, are described with dialogue that rings true. Nicely interwoven are excerpts from Jimi Hendrix’s songs as they are quoted by the company’s two resident drug addicts: “There are many here among us/ Who feel that life is but a joke.”