Zero Tolerance

Thomas Richards, Author
Thomas Richards, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $23 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-29662-9
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A complex conspiracy drives this fully imagined but very awkwardly structured first novel. At its center is the Bureau of Reclamation, a covert American engineering corps that sets out to flood Vietnam in postwar 1973 by constructing a dam designed to self-destruct. Set in the present, the novel is narrated by Gailly Harper, a writer who taps the memories of those who were involved in the project. Gailly is sought out by his brother, Jim, a talented engineer recruited by the ominous Bureau for the Vietnam dam. The Harpers have a history with rivers and dams: their mother believed she could converse with and control the Monongahela River in their Appalachian Pennsylvania hometown--a town ultimately flooded by the Bureau. Jim's friend Petard Davidson, a Digger Indian whose ancestral homeland was similarly destroyed, is a genius hydraulics engineer who hates the Bureau projects on which he works. An expert at sabotaging his own creations before they can destroy the environment, he reverses field in Vietnam, secretly making the dams work so that the devastating flooding never occurs. This is both a technically detailed thriller and an overwrought literary novel. The omnipotent Bureau (whose existence predates that of the U.S.) would be right at home in the paranoid imagination of Thomas Pynchon, to whom the book owes a spiritual debt and from whom Richards could still learn much about spicing earnest soapboxing with the pleasures of comedy. The central theme--that the human mania for manipulating the environment is easily corrupted--is a powerful one. But it's a one-note point that, in Richards's densely elliptical storytelling, is distractingly convoluted. (Jan.)
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