December 21 - December 27, 1995

B y  G r e g o r y  M c N a m e e

TONY HILLERMAN OPENS his new novel, Finding Moon (HarperCollins, $24), with an apology "for wandering away from our beloved Navajo canyon country."

Never mind that Hillerman violates Friedrich Nietzche's mandate to writers, by way of Hunter Thompson: Never apologize, never explain. The apology is unnecessary. While Finding Moon may not be Hillerman's best novel to date, it's just fine, taking its readers on a wild, suspenseful ride through exotic country, in just the way his best-selling Leaphorn-Chee mysteries have done.

In Finding Moon, Hillerman introduces a character we'll doubtless be hearing from again: Moon Mathias, a former combat infantryman turned small-town newspaper reporter and all-around curmudgeon. Readers will be forgiven for not liking Mathias much at first, inasmuch as Hillerman paints him, in the opening pages of his book, as a thoroughly unsympathetic man. Mathias is content to show up at work, bang out a few stories, suck down coffee in the place of the booze he has recently given up, and head back to a home he shares with a much younger girlfriend. All the while, most of his energy is devoted to carefully avoiding emotional commitment of any kind.

His unentangled life suddenly snarls on the morning of April 12, 1975, when Mathias receives a call from airport security at LAX: His mother has taken ill while awaiting an international flight for the Philippines. Not long before, his younger brother Ricky, an officer who resigned his commission to maintain a fleet of aircraft for a shadowy private concern in Southeast Asia, had been killed somewhere in Cambodia, "burned to ashes in a broken helicopter." Mathias can guess only that his mother was on her way to retrieve his brother's remains.

But things are more complicated than all that. Mathias' mother, it develops, was not on her way to claim her son, but her son's child, a girl born to a Cambodian woman. The government in Phnom Penh has collapsed that very day, helicopters are hiving on embassy roofs, foreigners throughout Southeast Asia are in headlong flight from advancing Communist armies. The time of "our gooks killing their gooks" has drawn to an end; it is now a time of purges, civil war and payback.

It is no time or place for a child of mixed descent to start life; as the woman who enlists herself in his support, a Dutch expatriate named Osa VanWinjgaarden, explains to Moon, "The Khmers don't like the Laotians, and the Laotians don't like the Thais, and the Vietnamese don't like the Montagnards, and nobody likes people who are mixed."

And so Mathias sets out in his mother's place to bring Ricky's daughter to the United States. His voyage takes him into the tiger cages of Ferdinand Marcos' Philippines, down atmospheric back alleys straight out of The Deer Hunter, across the South China Sea in a leaky tub worthy of Joseph Conrad. Mathias races across the Mekong Delta in a commandeered armored personnel carrier, braving mountains and swamps and minefields with a ragtag crew of helpers. He wanders through scenes of carnage that ring unpleasantly true (Mr. Hillerman, a veteran of World War II, dedicates his book to the men of his unit and to all those who have earned the Combat Infantry Badge).

That vision changes him--how could it not?--and when he finally finds his niece, the sorrow Mathias has faced tempers his elation at successfully completing his mission. "Now he could go home," Hillerman writes. "If he could get there. But where was the joy he should be feeling?"

Now, much of Hillerman's story veers dangerously close to the comic-book antics of a Rambo movie. The plotting is neither as thick nor as careful as in the Leaphorn-Chee mysteries for which Hillerman has become famous; the ending is just a little too pat, for which reason Hollywood will almost certainly snap this book up for a feel-good film; and the text is sprinkled with the throwaway Clichés of the genre: breasts bulge and heave, manly sinews throb, sinister people speak "oddly accented English."

But Moon's is as much a voyage of self-discovery--hence the title--as of finding a little girl he has never seen before. That many of the most interesting plot developments should come in a priest's confessional in Manila, where we discover just what has embittered Moon for so long, fits in perfectly with Hillerman's vision of Moon as a man of no attachments, a man with nothing much to recommend him, who comes to appreciate the needs of others. As Moon comes to grips with loss, rootedness, and the meaning of family, Hillerman's story acquires real depth.

The result is a fine suspense novel that tilts more toward Graham Greene than John D. McDonald. Tony Hillerman's many admirers will not be disappointed with Finding Moon, even if they, with Hillerman, find themselves far from familiar ground.

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December 21 - December 27, 1995

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