By Colin Harrison
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux 
January 2000; 0-374-10205-8; 435 pages

Read Book Synopsis

Read Excerpt

Afterburn by Colin HarrisonPrologue
Takhli Air Force Base, Thailand
May 1972

He slept on Earth but woke in the sky, he remembered years in order to forget seconds, he lived so that others might die.

In his cement-block quarters an air conditioner chunked night to dawn. The Thai housegirls disappeared when he stirred. At the pre-flight briefing he listened as the frag order - the incomplete target list direct from Saigon or Pentagon Far East - was announced. Then marched stiff-legged to the cockpit of the F-4. Later, beer and darts in the officers' club. And repeat. Bolt breakfast, get the weather report, brief the mission, figure the day's ordnance, run the pre-flight instrument check, line the birds up, boom off the ground, dash in across the jungle, clouds piled against the mountains - hard to ignore the beauty - deliver the load, dash out. Shower, write up the flight, do it again the next day. Count your missions. No sleep, but the food was excellent. He and the other pilots built a dirt basketball court near the airfield, and at the age of thirty-one, he could still get his palm above the rim. All the pilots were good guys and most were real bastards, too. They argued about everything. Nixon. Football teams. How to eat a monkey. The deep structure of the CIA. Hunting rifles. Conflicting theories regarding the locus of the female orgasm. Techniques for inducing same. Then back to it.

The squadrons competed to see how many missions they could score. The targets ranged from railway depots south of Hanoi, bridges, truck camps, and factories to North Vietnamese troop positions, surface-to-air missile sites, and even empty hilltops needing to be flattened for use as helicopter landing zones. On R&R he flew to Saigon, riding in from Tan Son Nhut Airfield along Duong Tu Do, the blue Air Force bus fitted with wire mesh instead of windows, the better to make grenades bounce away. A city of boulevards and streetlamps. Battered French-made sedans, motorbikes flitting through traffic. Always the air was hot, seeping, boys tugging his arm. The best place to drink was the roof of the Rex Hotel. Everywhere Vietnamese stood selling black-market cigarettes, radios, and chocolate. Everywhere U.S. servicemen were walking, standing, talking with prostitutes in miniskirts. It was ten dollars and yes he thought about it. Little smiling girls you put your cock into. What a monster he was - or might someday be.


He went to other places, too - Bangkok or Hong Kong to shop. Toys for the children, a watch for Ellie, get a suit made. He wandered the neon streets removed twice from himself - first from America, second from the war. A day later, he was back to the game. There was some paperwork, since he was in a supervisory position, but against the adrenaline moments of flying, it was routine, time passing, tick-tick goes the red trigger on the stick. He felt clean. He knew why he was there. He knew the score. Daily intelligence reports. Troop movements, pontoon bridges being repaired. Rail lines, Chinese-made trucks. Bombing winds, altimeter settings. You lived by a code, you maintained your duties, you knew who you were. And then the plane itself - you had to be clean to fly the machine.

He missed Ellie, missed her under him, going hard into her, riding her breath, but that was there waiting for him when he returned. A man lets go of that when he's on the verge of something else, something bigger. A woman, skin, the bed - these were limited sensations, all edges known. Nothing on earth compared to flying combat, for its proximity to death and heaven enlarged him. It was a great and terrifying secret that no one who hadn't experienced it could understand - in all of America, only several thousand men. And of those, only a few hundred were operational now, he one of them.

He couldn't tell Ellie. Not really. He kept her letters in a neat stack in his drawer. When he didn't care to write, he talked into a tape recorder, just rambled along. Kiss Julia and Ben for me. Go ahead and sign the mortgage, sweetie. What was a mortgage compared to a Soviet-built MiG-21 fighter? He'd made captain early, he could do five hundred sit-ups without stopping, he'd counted cards at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, he could still screw three times in one night, he owned eight hundred shares of IBM and had danced the tango with Ellie at their wedding reception. He'd rolled a Jaguar doing ninety while stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in California and walked off his concussion, he'd dropped an F-86 on a runway in Wiesbaden, West Germany. He was tested and proven and scared. He was in his prime and he knew it. Ninety-seven missions, three confirmed MiG kills, dozens of trucks, trains, and artillery pieces. How many dead Vietcong, how many dead North Vietnamese regulars? He knew the number, more or less. It was just a number. He told no one, and no one asked.

Of course, he was angry, too. You always were when they were fucking with the technical parameters of your survival. Ellie didn't understand, and if he explained it to her on paper, he'd be flying freighters to Guam. The bureaucracy appalled him, desktop generals promoted in the somnolent 1950s sitting in the puzzle palaces making war policy. The forms and reports, the smudging of statistics. The war protesters putting pressure on him, directly, though they didn't know it. He formulated air strikes and suggested them to his superiors, many of whom had the Pentagon in one ear the whole day. But Washington used the Air Force against North Vietnam only like a cattle prod - trying to get a reaction without causing excessive damage, without doing what it had the power to do: crush North Vietnamese industry and supply lines. At times, the squads weren't even allowed to attack. A North Vietnamese cargo plane carrying war materiel was off-limits. North Vietnamese airfields were off-limits. He'd lost three men to MiG fighters parked on fields he regularly flew over. And all flying targets had to be sight-checked, as if the MiGs did not have air-to-air missiles, as if the American planes, the most advanced fighting machines ever built, did not have radar. It was fucking political. Some guys dropped ordnance anyway, claimed a rack malfunction. The Pentagon didn't appreciate the variables - the weather, the changing SAM sites, the uncertainty of MiG resistance. And the MiGs had a distinct initial advantage over the American planes. Smaller and not laden with ordnance, they turned much tighter circles than American jets, and could achieve the dominant six o'clock position-the position in which you would get banged up the ass by a Chinese missile. Hanoi had the most ornate local airspace defense system on the globe: hundreds of computer-linked SAM sites that could throw up a canopy of protection. On the city's outskirts 100-millimeter gun emplacements waved ten-thousand-foot whips of steel. The thought of it made him twist at night, made him feel he was digesting his own innards. He could get shot down. He could go from flesh to flame.

But you weren't supposed to dwell on it - might make you tentative, weak. Yet how could he not? He'd flown over Hao Lo Prison in Hanoi, the Hanoi Hilton. The compound was laid out in a diamond, and much was known about what went on inside. Built by the French, Hao Lo served as North Vietnam's main prison and as headquarters for the country's penitentiary system. It occupied nearly a city block. The massive sixteen-foot walls were topped by thousands of shards of broken champagne bottles. Three strands of barbed wire, the top one electrified. No American flier had ever successfully escaped the Hanoi Hilton. Nonetheless, word about the inside had filtered out through CIA operatives working in Hanoi, via the ingeniously coded letters of airmen to their wives that the North Vietnamese sporadically allowed, and from the few "reeducated" prisoners Hanoi had released. He preferred to think about the American pilot who had appeared on Japanese television, which the U.S. monitored. The pilot, clean-shaven, dressed in fresh pajamas, had been forced to say he and other POWs were being well fed, supplied with cigarettes, and attended to by doctors. This the pilot did with odd pauses: When the intelligence people first looked at the films, they wondered if he had been drugged. In fact, the pilot hadn't been - he was just concentrating. The advisers realized he was flashing a message in Morse code with his eyelids: torture. Some CIA men had shown the film during a briefing on Hao Lo. In the prison, the Americans lived in one of four areas: Camp Unity, Las Vegas, Heartbreak, or New Guy Village. The rooms had names: the Meathook Room, the Knobby Room (the walls were studded with knobs of acoustical plaster to absorb screams), Rawhide, the Quiz Room, Calcutta. The North Vietnamese were effective torturers, having been so effectively tortured by the French.

It was also known that American POWs communicated with two codes: the standard POW mute code, which utilized hand signals, and the "AFLQV" auditory code, first developed by American POWs in Korea, much faster to learn than Morse, and worth practicing for an hour each week, which he did - in case he might need it. Each letter headed a line of five letters in a twenty-five-letter square: 


The letter K was dropped and replaced with the letter C. The first signal identified the row: Two quick taps, for example, meant the F row. The second signal identified the column. A tap, tap, tap ... tap, tap meant M. The pause was longer between letters. A 3, 2-1, 1-3, 3 sequence spelled MAN. By this time shortcuts and adaptations for visual use had evolved, including scratching, coughing, spitting - anything to keep the North Vietnamese guessing. Anything to pretend to hope.

He tried not to think about it. But being a POW was a chilling prospect. The North Vietnamese had signed the 1949 Geneva Convention treaty but refused to apply its prisoner-of-war edicts to captured American pilots on the basis that the pilots were war "criminals" rather than prisoners. The treaty had expressly prohibited measures of reprisal against prisoners, instead seeking to ensure their physical and psychological well-being. But in the post-Hitler fervor the treaty had limited the rights of war criminals, who were defined as persons who had committed War Crimes ("...wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military action..."); or Crimes against Humanity ("...murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts against any civilian population...")  The North Vietnamese had seized upon this definition as part of their overall worldwide propaganda campaign. By parading American airmen as heinous mass murderers, they not only stimulated political pressure in the international community but justified incarceration, interrogation, indoctrination, starvation, and torture.

Thus his superstitions. He was known to the flight mechanics as a detail freak, checking the F-4's electrical and hydraulic systems before flying. The pilots under his command in the squadron preferred flying with him. He'd lost only five men. Yet the best of pilots were shot down, and not necessarily when probability dictated they might be. On his last visit home, eight months earlier, he had impulsively tucked one of Ben's wooden Lincoln Logs into his jacket. Now it went with him on every flight. And before each mission, during the briefing of weather conditions, refueling patterns, primary approach, decoy flight patterns, probable SAM locations, and priority targets, he fingered this little notched cylinder of wood, rubbing it with his thumb. Cloud formations, time-fuel checkpoints. Visualize the mission, anticipate contingency. The men depended on him. If they had doubts, they could ask and sometimes he would change the plan just so they would feel they had a stake in it. You had to do that, keep getting behind their eyes into their heads. You looked for less interest in the plane's condition, decreased appetite, increased drinking, more wife-talk. If they got lax, if they started fucking the Thai housegirls, men got killed. He had to watch for that, he had to watch for everything.

The Frag Order that morning specified a well-known target, its weirdness part of the natural voodoo of the war. The Paul Doumer Bridge, a gargantuan structure named after the French statesman, crossed the Red River south of Hanoi, a vital link in the North Vietnamese supply line. Its steel-and-concrete foundations had resisted thousands of tons of bombs; mission after mission of fighter bombers had attacked the bridge yet barely scorched its roadbed. The Air Force, in its infinite bureaucratic frustration, had tried to B-52 it, even dropped floatable explosives upriver and detonated them when they drifted beneath the bridge spans. None of the schemes was successful. The bridge was damaged but never destroyed. And now, reported the frag order, the bridge was covered with bamboo scaffolding, and a repair barge was tied to a pylon. Air recon had spotted the barge; his job was to sink it.

He rose at 0500, ate, briefed the flight, his jocks scribbling numbers on their knee-board cards, then walked to the pilots' locker room. There, as always, he removed his wedding band, watch, and wallet, items of no use to him in flight and potentially useful to North Vietnamese captors. He stepped into his flight suit, then into a G suit, an inflatable girdle that covered his stomach and legs. This hooked to a line in the cockpit that was fed with engine compression bleed-off air. When the F-4 accelerated past 2.5 Gs, sections of the suit swelled, increasing pressure on his legs and belly, keeping blood from pooling in the bottom of his body, a dangerous effect that caused blackout. Over the G suit he put on a torso harness, which he would snap into the plane's seat - it kept him from being buffeted around the cockpit when the plane was inverted. Then he pulled on the twenty-pound survival vest, jammed with maps, code books, water bottles, emergency transmitter, two hundred and fifty feet of rappelling line, flares, knives, ammunition, a saw, foodstuffs, a compass, fishing gear, a pound of rice, gold coins, first-aid pack, matches, shark repellent, whistle, signal mirror, sewing kit, water purification tablets, and morphine. Last, he strapped a .38 pistol to his calf.

He walked out toward the flight line at a slight cant from the weight of the survival vest, carrying his helmet. His gear clinked and rattled. Blinking in the low sunlight to the east, coffee on his tongue. The smell of JP-4 jet fuel. He had showered earlier, but only now did his consciousness wake and assume the form of a fifty-eight-thousand-pound fighter jet. Only now did he slip on the deep-green aviator sunglasses that reflected a curvilinear airfield where men wheeled bombs toward a row of jets, the backdrop lush forest, blue sky.

His plane was being serviced by the maintenance crew. He walked around the needle nose, the short wings, the slab of the tail. Slowly, looking. It was cool to the touch. He knew the plane's surfaces better than he remembered the faces of his children, the dents and patches and hydraulic fluid leaks, the zinc chromate smears where the plane had taken damage. The F-4 Phantom, so perfect on the drawing board, was in war a dinged, banged-up, pocked, underserviced, paint-peeling, galvanic-corroded workhorse that nonetheless performed remarkably. He climbed the ladder and lowered himself into the cockpit, trying to avoid flipping any panel switches. He wriggled into the seatback, parachute pack, and headrest. The cockpit smelled of burnt wiring. The air inside was over one hundred degrees, a slow roast. He attached the four quick-release fittings to the torso harness and buckled the leg-restraint straps across his shins; in an ejection, the straps protected his legs from striking the front canopy - and thereby being amputated. He plugged in the G suit and pulled on his helmet and then fitted the oxygen mask to his face. The start cart next to the plane whined, and he flipped the electrical power switch to external. The cockpit came alive. Gauge needles shivered, amber warning lights blinked on, the radio crackled awake. He checked the frequencies and killed a fly trapped in the forward section of the canopy. The heat gathered beneath his helmet. A world away, Ellie was washing up the dishes after dinner, the children letting the screen door slam as they ran outside with their ice-cream cones. Always he kept track of their parallel days. Ellie tying Ben's sneaker, Ellie on the telephone listening to her mother's complaints, Ellie in her sunglasses at the supermarket, Ellie reading to Julia, Ellie finding a gray hair, pulling at it angrily. Ellie dutiful, Ellie strong. Was this what they were? She living at the air base, he a technician in a tin can? A soldier-actor in a drama staged by politicians? All that was unanswerable. He preferred to think of his wife as he had seen her on his last leave - a glass of wine on the arm of her reading chair, an oversized volume of Renaissance paintings in her lap, the heavy bodies in torment and longing and ecstasy. Her hair fallen down. He imagined that she looked at the paintings and drank off the wine and then later struggled in the sheets, her fingers pressed against herself. He hoped she did that. He hoped to God she only did that - and would not be bitter at his absence. If she was bitter, perhaps later he could bear it with some kind of grace, since he was the cause of it. But maybe I am fooling myself, he thought, maybe she is happy without me, or mostly happy. You thought you knew but you never did. The children tired her each day, and she was alone with them. Alone now, presumably. Yet Ellie never showed doubt that he would return. Did she worry secretly, or was her faith in his survival absolute?

By now his electronic warfare officer had climbed in the rear seat. They could not see each other but communicated by live mike. He fired up the left engine, moving the throttle forward and watching the rpm and exhaust gas temperature gauges rise. When the left engine reached idle, he started the right one and switched to internal electrical power. The ground crew pulled away the support vehicles beneath the plane. He reached up and chunked the canopy shut. Signaling back and forth with the ground crew, he tested the speed brakes, flaps, and ailerons. The crewman gave him the thumbs-up. The sun had climbed over the tree line on the horizon, burning off moisture, leveling a hard. slant of heat across the streaked expanse of the airfield. His wingman was ready now, too.

"Two up."

"Three ready."

He taxied briskly along the runway. At the head of the runway a serviceman ducked under the fuselage and activated the bomb racks and missiles.

"Blue one ready for takeoff," he told the tower.

"Blue one cleared."

He signaled his wingman and pressed the throttle, running the engine up from idle to one hundred percent power - 10,200 rpm. The airspeed indicator needle jumped to fifty knots, and then he moved the throttles outward and forward to the afterburner stop. Maximum power, jet fuel exploding in the exhaust nozzle. Give me everything, he prayed, let's fuck the sky. The plane jolted forward, the runway flashed past. The wheels thudded over the line of cement-football field lengths shooting beneath him - and then the nose gear quieted, lifted, and the plane arced skyward. He pulled the flaps up and again the plane lurched forward, the airspeed needle climbing past three hundred knots. The pneumatic system whistled as the plane groaned and banged and shuddered its way up to speed, the two immense engines feeding a roaring, cylindrical inferno that pressed the seat against his back. Beneath him, above him, around him, air rushed over the fuselage. Ground fell away. One thousand feet, two thousand, three thousand feet. In the sky.

The four planes joined in a combat spread and vectored north, cruising at forty thousand feet, wingtips ten feet apart. He was so near his wingman he could see the rivets and scratches on the canopy frame, the stenciled emergency markings beneath it. The flight passed into an en- compassing cloud rack-four airborne sharks in pale depthlessness. The radio gargled layers and layers of garbage sound: other Air Force radio conversations, the mocking and occasionally confusing interruption of Hanoi women broadcasters (false coordinates, insults, sexual taunts - all in a sneering, provocative voice), and the screeching static of North Vietnamese ground technicians trying to jam the frequencies. The noises tore through one another, became louder and softer, choppy, windy, punctuated by blasts of music and faraway unintelligible voices.

The clouds cleared, and seven miles below stretched a landscape of flooded rice paddies, shattered mirrors of the sky, fed by a river that wound lazily like the ever-switching tail of a cat. Above them stretched a ceiling of cirrostratus.

'Blue lead," came the ground air controller, "this is Red Crown. Bandits at two-four-oh degrees, thirty-two miles."

"Roger," he said into the helmet mike. "Blue flight, make a ten-degree turn south, let them chase us."

"Blue lead, Blue two. SAMs at forty degrees, five miles."

"Right." The North Vietnamese were throwing up resistance to drive them south, make them waste fuel.

"Blue lead, this is Red Crown. Three SAMs up ahead."

"Bandits must be in contact with the ground."

"You have an altitude on SAM, two?" "Eighteen thousand."

Setting up a SAM envelope, chasing them into it. The SAM detonation settings would be varied to explode over a wide range.

"Blue lead, MiGs seven o'clock, eight miles."


"I've got three up ahead, Blue lead."

"Blue lead, make a hard turn north. You have SAM coming at you five thousand feet and closing." He pulled on the stick and the jet veered to the north. He saw a flight of MiGs above and behind him. The SAMs were exploding harmlessly a mile back.

"Bandits high." The flight came out of its turn. He had to decide whether to press on toward the bridge, still fifty miles away, or engage the MiGs, which hovered behind them like black mosquitoes with red wing stripes. They were close to air-to-air range.

"Blue lead, I've got four SAM launches."

He could see the SAMS, white telephone poles rising in a long curve directly in front of him.

"MiGs closing' '

"Blue lead, you have two MiGs on your-"

He saw them coming, and also saw a SAM rising up in front of him. The North Vietnamese ground technicians knew their exact altitude by now, had reprogrammed the SAMs' detonation height. A direct hit could turn a plane into a million pieces of burnt metal, pattering like rain into the forest. He climbed, and the SAM exploded four hundred feet beneath him.

The MiGs were close. "Blue lead, you have-"

"I see them!"

The closer MiG fired. He went into a hard dive. The heat-seeking missile followed him. The G's were staggering. He tightened his leg muscles to force the blood back to his brain. He grunted. It was coming - a roaring, weaving, smoke-trailing dart that altered its course every time he did. His peripheral vision went black, he couldn't see. The airframe would buckle at 7.33 G's. He flew by feel, the plane vibrating. The missile had to be within fifty yards now. He cut sharply out of the dive, breathed once, twice. The missile had sailed past. His vision came back, he looked for his wingman. But as he completed his turn, the radio cried, "SAM! SAM!-" and a roar of light enveloped the right side of the jet.

The plane jolted, the fire panel lit up.

Get altitude! The fire was in the bombing electronics panel. He hit the armament release button, cleaning off the plane by sixteen thousand pounds. The bomb racks dropped earthward.

"Blue lead, you're on fire. Wing damage visible''

The plane lurched, and he pulled on the stick to get control. If the wing twisted back violently, the plane would start spinning, and that would be the end. But if he ejected here and made it to the ground alive, he'd be checking into the Hanoi Hilton. The hits didn't seem close to the fuel lines, so lighting the afterburner was not a bad bet. On the other hand, the faster speed would increase the stress on the damaged wing. He'd take the chance.

"Blue flight," he said, "engage burner, switch to emergency procedure. I'm going to try to haul out as far as I can. Two, get RESCAP on the radio, tell them what's happening."

He switched to the intercom to talk with his backseater. "Larry, I'll ride this, get us a better ditch spot."

"I'm with you."

 He lit the burner. The plane jammed forward. Yes, he thought, blast me out of here, burn me home. The shimmering torch appeared in the tail of the plane next to him. Here we go. Then three red lights blinked on. The hydraulics were losing pressure, leaks in the primary and redundant systems. Without them, he couldn't maneuver the plane. He was flying an unguided plane at a thousand knots an hour, a roaring perversion.

"Blue flight. Hydraulics gone. Check ground position. I'll be punching out", The jungle rushed beneath him. He felt for the ejection ring between his thighs, so placed because in a falling plane the increased G-forces made it impossible for a pilot to raise his arms.

"Blue lead. RESCAP notified."

"Get ready, Larry." The main panel went dead. Primary electrical system out. Perhaps he'd passed over into the DMZ. The stick froze in his hands. The fire was moving internally through the fuselage. Was South Vietnam below? If so, he had a chance. He couldn't recognize the mountain formations. Estimated speed Mach 1.1 and slowing. Six seconds a mile. The ground below blurred by.

"Blue lead, Blue lead, your wing is breaking up. Get out." He felt the plane go sloppy. Slowing. Hold. Just hold. South past the DMZ. Every six seconds ... they were losing speed, don't spin, don't spin, he counted one, two, three, four ... you had to duck during ejection, design fault, tall men sometimes decapitated ... eight ... don't flail on ejection, easy to break arms ... nine -

"Charlie, get the fuck-"

He blew the canopy. Then ejected - into a wall of wind he hit at four hundred knots, driving his heart into his spine, jamming his shoulders against the seatback, compressing his trachea, the air burning over the exposed skin at his wrist and neck, spinning him heels over head. The roar, the silence. His blood could not catch up with his spinning body, his guts were in his mouth. Still moving a hundred knots. His ejection seat dropped off, and the parachute riffled noisily above him. Straps tightened around his chest and thighs, he took quick breaths in the thin air, felt his heart catching up. Okay, okay. A mile away the Phantom dropped in a violent spin, a long plume behind it. He looked around for his backseater, who had ejected simultaneously. Where's the chute? he wondered. C'mon. He looked between his feet and saw a flailing, helmeted figure below him, still strapped to the ejection seat, falling like a stone. Negative chute on Larry. Jesus.

He'd be in the air another thirty seconds. He turned his beeper off to conserve the battery, give the North Vietnamese a harder time tracking him, if they were around. A low haze hung over the forest, which rose toward him, a green floor. He maneuvered his parachute toward a knoll that looked as if it had recently taken some fire; perhaps RESCAP knew the terrain. In a few minutes Blue flight would hook up with the KC-135 refueling tankers that circled in a racetrack oval in a safe area, then would return to establish radio contact. A-1 Skyraiders and a RESCAP AC-47 would come in for flak suppression, if there was any, while a chopper would drop straight down on the knoll to pick him up. Sometimes it worked, other times went wrong. A pilot's beeper failed, the sky got dark, chopper failure, navigation error, heavy ground fire.

The wind ripped at his parachute lines. Under his feet the trees became distinct. No fire. He tensed and relaxed his calves, awaiting the shock of the ground. The knoll came up quickly now, and he picked out a place to hide the parachute. Then, toward the west, the sun glimmering off their rifles, he saw a Vietcong patrol cutting through ground vegetation. They didn't want just him, they wanted to position themselves for a flak trap on the rescue attempt. Rescue pilots were taught to troll for fire to expose ground forces. But the VC were capable of unholy restraint, willing to use a dead pilot's beeper to draw a rescue attempt and then wait out a cautionary rocket attack by the Americans. Now one of the VC watched him with binoculars and told the others which direction to go.

He landed, rolled, stood up. He tore off his helmet but couldn't remove the cumbersome G suit without staying in the open for a minute, too dangerous to do. He stepped out of his parachute and ran to the edge of the knoll, pulling the chute with him. He found a low place covered with vines and wriggled inside, then sat sweating in the leaves and insect hum. He checked his flight watch, took the safety off his pistol. Either the patrol had encountered difficulty hacking through the underbrush or it was waiting for the rescue effort. He spied a blackened crater ten yards away. Probably caused by a stray rocket or mortar round and better cover in a firefight - better, anyway, than vines and leaves. He scrambled forward on his hands and knees over blackened roots, rolled into the hole.

It contained a charred corpse, eyes burnt out, face cooked tight over the skull. judging by the sandals, VC. Hey, buddy, he thought, fuck you. The air was hot. So quiet. It seemed he could just stand up and wait. He checked his watch again. Larry. Larry's wife. The arrival of the Air Force sedan outside the base housing, the two officers easing slowly from the car - the wives knew what that meant. Ellie would whisper, "Oh no." Then he saw the Phantoms high up in the sky. He turned on his beeper. They would establish a circling pattern at about six thousand feet and direct the slower craft to the knoll. The RESCAP prop plane came grinding over the jungle, an ugly, blunt-nosed piece of machinery. It would establish a tight orbit at about two thousand feet and be the middle tier of the rescue operation.

Copyright © 2000 Colin Harrison
Reprinted with permission.

(back to top)


Colin Harrison's riveting new thriller tells the story of Charlie Ravich, a survivor whose brutal experience as a POW in Vietnam has more than prepared him for the cutthroat world of global commerce. Now an Upper East Side executive in his late fifties, Charlie has only one problem: his family is dying out. His wife teeters on the edge of Alzheimer's; their son has succumbed to leukemia; and their daughter, Julia, is unable to bear a child. Charlie is being trumped by time.

Enter Christina, a voluptuous and beguiling Columbia University dropout - intelligent, selectively dishonest, filled with desire. Her affair with Rick Bocca, a member of a big-time truck-theft ring run by mobster Tony V., has landed her in prison. After four years at Bedford Hills, she is suddenly released by the Manhattan D.A.'s office - perhaps because she is innocent, perhaps not.

Warned by a detective that Christina is being set up by Tony V., Rick begins a desperate, bungled search to warn Christina, who has lied her way into the high-flying world of Charlie Ravich.  But her past catches up with her, and Rick's catches up with him, setting off a harrowing chain of betrayals that leaves only one person with any hope of a future.

A high-voltage thriller at once smart, sexy, and graphically violent, Afterburn spans the mean streets of New York's underworld and Hong Kong's corridors of high finance, and stands as Harrison's most unforgettable work yet.


"The handy cliché alleging that a thriller is so good it transcends it's genre has rarely been truer than in the case of this breathtakingly suspenseful meditation on the interwoven ambiguities of life and death ... A practically perfect literary thriller with a bitter lingering "afterburn" indeed."--Kirkus Reviews (Starred)

"Colin Harrison is a writer of uncommon grace and velocity.  His stories have a rare combination of moral weight, suspensefulness, and dangerous glamour.  Afterburn may be his best book yet.  Don't miss it."--Peter Blauner, Author of The Intruder and Man of the Hour (back to top)


Colin HarrisonColin Harrison is the deputy editor of Harper's Magazine.   He and his wife, Kathryn Harrison, live in Brooklyn.

Buy Afterburn at

Read Review

Home | All Chapters Excerpts | Next