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Highways to a War


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Koch (The Year of Living Dangerously) spins another war-correspondent story, but this one has an elegiac tone that borders on the saccharine. Set in the unusual landscape of Tasmanian hop farms and in the more-chronicled territory of Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and '70s, the narrative focuses on Mike Langford, an Australian-born war photographer who has disappeared inside Cambodia. Told mainly through first-person ``interviews'' conducted by Langford's boyhood friend Ray Barton, this is a fragmented tale, substantially hampered by a long opening section, which wades through Langford's youth but fails to create much complexity in the hero. The adult Langford, a boyish blond prone to winking and acts of battlefield courage, isn't much deeper. But as the various narrators tell their stories and fill in the blanks, the plot picks up steam. In Phnom Penh, we find, not surprisingly, that Langford secretly took a hand in Cambodia's tangled politics. Ironically, however, secondary characters like a retired Australian spook and a boorish Russo-Parisian photographer far outshine the angelic Langford in both depth and appeal. Similarly, in the various narrators interviewed by Barton, Koch hits an interesting blend of intelligence and vulnerability, capturing the voices of journalists and old hands whose business it is to be cautious and watchful. This is especially true of Jim Feng, Langford's best friend, whose account of a grisly march along the Ho Chi Minh Trail is the novel's high point. Ultimately, however, the narrative is sunk by its bland hero, in spite of the atmosphere conjured by a veteran of the terrain. 35,000 first printing. (June)

Australian war photographer Mike Langford has just disappeared inside Cambodia as this intriguing novel opens in 1976. That country has been closed to all foreigners since the Khmer Rouge takeover, however, so when Langford doesn't emerge the general presumption is that he has been killed or taken prisoner. When the narrator, a boyhood friend, receives Langford's diary-on-tape, spanning 1965-1975, it sets off a series of reminiscences that offer indelible insights into the mind and heart of a remarkable individual who would dare infiltrate Communist Kampuchea against all odds. Readers will be touched by Langford's experiences in Indonesia (the setting of Koch's 1979 novel, The Year of Living Dangerously), Vietnam, and Cambodia. Highly recommended.-Will Hepfer, SUNY at Buffalo Libs.

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