A fractured story of Vietnam

novel | Absolution, Miriam Herin, Novello Festival press, $22.95, 320 pages

A few years ago I thought I had a sure thing: the ear of a New York editor at a big writers conference. Suddenly a small, white-haired gentleman with a thick manuscript under his arm heaved himself at my quarry. He claimed to have a can't-miss World War II memoir. The New York guy never heard my pitch.

So many stories. So few publishers.

That's why it is so welcome that the Novello Festival Press, which is run by the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, has established the annual Novello Literary Award for literary fiction and nonfiction. Now in its eighth year and open to residents of North and South Carolina, the contest has found such variegated gems as Michelle Groce's delightful young adult novel, "Jasper," and Ron Rash's glittering Appalachian whodunnit, "One Foot in Eden." And with "Absolution," a novel by Greensboro's Miriam Herin, Novello enlarges the tradition.

"Absolution" begins as a legal procedural, following the case of Anh "Billy" Nguyen, a Vietnamese teenager in Boston who is alleged to have shot and killed Richard Delaney, a Special Forces veteran of the Vietnam War. Proceeding at first from the point of view of Maggie Delaney, Richard's widow, the novel in its middle third morphs into a rich oral history told by several characters, including Maggie. Prompted by the media comments of Nguyen's defense attorney, Everett Quincy, Maggie searches her own and Richard's past for evidence that contradicts Quincy's public claim: a violent flashback caused Richard to attack the teen, who killed Richard in self-defense.

"Absolution" grips and holds like popular fiction, but its themes and complexity encourage the reader to slow down. Readability we might expect from Herin, who has taught literature and composition at the college level, while writing and editing for publications such as Good Housekeeping and the Winston-Salem Journal.

Nor is complexity surprising. Though this is Herin's first novel, the story shows the kind of wisdom and clear-sightedness that time and experience are bound to provide. Herin is a baby boomer who came of age in the '60s. "Absolution" shows she has done some reflection since then.

The plot necessitates that Herin pay ample attention to the scenes in Vietnam, which reconstruct the story of a combat team's attempt to protect mountain villagers near the Cambodian border -- and Richard's part in a difficult chapter of that story. This account unfolds gradually with a number of narrators, who are reluctant to share with Maggie all they know about a chaotic and bloody period of their lives, but all of whom affirm Richard's personal integrity. Readers frustrated along with Maggie at the fragmentary nature of the disclosures will be heartened at Maggie's own account of the anti-war culture in New York City at the same time. Herin's handling of Maggie's arrest after a protest and her harrowing experience in jail feels authentic and generates real suspense.

Amid the great events, there are Maggie and Richard, the human beings, and how they came to be married. Here, the yin and yang romantic possibilities of pairing the fiery anti-war protester with the straight-arrow military guy do not come out as one might expect, especially because there is a guy from Maggie's past she can't forget. That this isn't the story of two true lovers underlines the complexities and contradictions of a time fast receding in the American rear-view mirror.

The gradual and inevitable shaking of Maggie's faith in her late husband keeps us reading, while Herin skillfully uses the '60s -- the social upheaval, the strife of Vietnam, the evolution of women's roles -- to hammer out the fates of its main characters. "Absolution" is not history, but maybe something better than history: an account that gathers many threads and shows in unmistakable fashion how extraordinary times change people, and how the consequences of one's actions can come decades after the actions themselves.

Reading "Absolution," I began to understand the motives of that old gentleman who cut in on my dance with the New York editor. World War II is even closer to the horizon line than Vietnam, and everywhere, the voices of that generation are being silenced. That would-be author must have known his time -- and the opportunity to tell a story like "Absolution" -- was limited.

The comedian Robin Williams once cracked that if you remember the '60s, you weren't there. Nevertheless, I hope baby boomers continue to tell the story. Time, for all of us, is limited; the need to hear, infinite.