The narrator, addressing the Commandant, describes himself as “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He begins his confession in April 1975, when the Vietnam War has ended. Though he is currently in a prison cell, at the time the narrator was living in a villa with the General and his wife, Madame. In March of 1975, the South Vietnamese Army’s northern front collapses, and the narrator and the General are in disbelief. Secretly, the narrator takes pictures of the reports of defeats and war crimes and sends them to Man, his “handler.” The news of troops shooting civilians in the back so that they can be first to escape on barges and boats makes the narrator feel sympathy for the poor victims, but it also pleases him to know that the South Vietnamese regime is collapsing.
The novel’s first lines are strongly influenced by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Like the narrators in those novels, this narrator describes how others refuse to see him as he really is as long as he serves his social purpose. In this instance, the narrator serves a dual purpose as both a loyalist to the South Vietnamese and a Communist spy, plotting with those who have overtaken the south, thereby ending the civil war. His sympathy is humane, but it also allows for some emotional detachment from political upheavals. Note also the structure of the novel that is introduced here: in the narrative present the narrator is confessing to a “Commandant,” telling his life story starting back at the fall of Saigon.
The Americans have rejected the South Vietnamese’s request for more money to buy “the ammunition, gas, and spare parts for the weapons, planes, and tanks” that they had once given for free. Madame suggests that the General and the narrator ask their friend, Claude, for a plane to help them escape. Claude says that the best he can do is arrange for “a black flight,” a C-130 flying in secret. The plane can hold 92 paratroopers and their gear, but the General’s extended family alone comprises 58 people, and Madame would never forgive him if he did not rescue all of her relatives.
The General struggles with the moral dilemma of leaving behind his people due to no longer having the resources to fight. He insists on having a plane large enough to carry Madame’s extended family. This is his way, not only of pleasing his wife, but of assuaging his own guilt for leaving behind so many of his people while he seeks safety for himself and his family.
The General then asks Claude if his staff will be evacuated. Claude says that, officially, there will be no evacuations because the Americans aren’t “pulling out anytime soon.” The General, who seldom raises his voice, now furiously responds. He wonders why his staff can’t be evacuated when planes have been leaving all day and all night, and when babies and orphans have been evacuated. Claude explains how Saigon would erupt into riots if an evacuation were declared and that people might turn on the few Americans who remain. Many of those people worked for Americans. Some of them believed that, if the Communists won, they would be forced into prison or death by strangulation. The virgins, they thought, would be forced to marry the Communist “barbarians.” The CIA propagated these rumors.
The General wants to save as many people as he can single-handedly. However, he’s losing patience with Claude and other American colleagues who say one thing and do another. It seems irrelevant to the General that children might be considered a greater priority than the men on his staff. Claude wants to remain quiet about the rescue planes because he worries that the South Vietnamese people may feel as though they have been betrayed by the Americans. They may also worry about their livelihoods if they are abandoned by their employers.
Claude reminds the General that he’s lucky to get a plane. Other generals are only getting seats for immediate family. They finish their whiskeys and Claude says goodbye. Later that day, the president of South Vietnam resigns. The narrator works on the list of evacuees, while the General attends meetings at the Joint General Staff compound to work out how to hold Saigon but also to prepare to abandon it. Striking names off of the list, the narrator feels like an executioner.
The infrastructure of South Vietnam is collapsing. Both the General and the narrator are left with the difficult task of determining who among the staff is worthy enough to live. The narrator feels like an executioner because he knows that those who are left behind will likely be killed by the North Vietnamese Army.
The narrator continues working on the list of evacuees, while those fighting in the Battle of Xuan Loc are defeated and Phnom Penh falls to the Khmer Rouge. A few nights later, the former South Vietnamese president flees for Taiwan with “a hefty share” of Vietnam’s gold. Claude calls the next morning to say that the plane he assigned to the General will be leaving in two days. That evening, the narrator finishes his list. A number of the senior officers with the most knowledge and know-how in the work of the Special Branch will be left behind. The narrator reserves one seat and three more on the plane for Bon, his wife, and his child, who is also the narrator’s godson.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that all of former French Indochina is being overtaken by Communism. The Vietnamese will later have a confrontation with the Communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. However, the former South Vietnamese president’s actions demonstrate that the former regime was not exactly beneficial to the Vietnamese people either. The decision to leave behind the officers in the Special Branch is part of the General’s plan, or hope, to seize Vietnam back from Communist rule.
Along with Man, Bon is one of the narrator’s “blood brothers.” In their school days, they swore undying loyalty to each other by slicing their palms open and mingling their blood in ritual handshakes. The narrator asks the General for the favor of taking Bon and his family with them. The General agrees, particularly because of Bon’s work as a paratrooper. The General believes that if the South Vietnamese Army were composed only of Airborne men like Bon, they would have won the war. The General goes on to commiserate with the narrator about how the Americans sold them the war with the promise of saving them from Communism. There is nowhere else for the General and the others to go but America.
Though the narrator is betraying Bon with his Communist sympathies, he tries to save his life by helping him get out of Vietnam, knowing that the North Vietnamese will probably kill him if he stays. The General complies, believing that Bon and the other Airborne men demonstrated exceptional courage in the war. The General also comes to terms with the fact that he entered the war on the false hope that the Americans would guarantee that they would win.
On their last morning in Vietnam, the narrator drives the General to his office at the National Police compound. The narrator’s office is down the hall from the General’s. He summons five officers to meet with him, one by one. One of them is the "crapulent" major. As the narrator finishes his meetings, he hears distant booms, which rattle the windows. He sees fire and smoke coming from the east—enemy fire has set the Long Binh ammunition depot aflame. The narrator pulls a bottle of Jim Beam out of his desk drawer and drinks from it. He imagines his mother telling him not to drink so much. He finishes the whiskey, and then drives the General home through a storm.
The narrator and the General disagree about the crapulent major (crapulent means drunken and excessive, and the narrator uses this word many times to describe the major), which will become more apparent later in the novel. The narrator chooses the major due to his good work, but also because he likes him as a person. The major’s obesity, a consequence of his overindulgence in food, is something that the General can’t abide. He has no problem, however, with the narrator’s overindulgence in alcohol, which he probably associates with masculine toughness.
After he finishes packing, the narrator borrows a car to get Bon. The military police wave him through the checkpoints when they see the General’s stars on the vehicle. The narrator is driving across the river, where the refugees’ shanties have been obliterated by “pyromaniacal soldiers and clean-cut arsonists who had found their true calling as bombardiers,” or corporals. Bon and Man wait at a beer garden. When the narrator arrives, Bon pours him a glass of beer as soon as he sits down. Bon lifts his glass to toast their future meeting in the Philippines, though they will actually be going to Guam.
The obliteration of the refugees’ shanties is evidence of the ruthlessness with which Vietnamese soldiers in the war treated each other, forgetting both ethnic loyalty and human sympathy in favor of political allegiance. The narrator’s meeting with Bon and Man in the beer garden—a site of bonding—is complicated by Bon’s unawareness of his friends’ political sympathies and his equal unawareness of the narrator’s spy work.
When the narrator, Bon, and Man leave the beer garden, they stop to smoke a cigarette in an alley, where they encounter three drunken marines. Though it’s only 6:00 PM, the marines are inebriated, and their fatigues are stained with beer. One bumps into the narrator and mistakes him for a policeman before Man corrects him, saying that the narrator is a captain and that the lieutenant should remember to salute a superior. The third marine dismisses Man’s demand for respect, reminding him that the president and the generals have disappeared. There’s nowhere to go, they say, and they’re certain that they’ll soon die. When the first marine calls the narrator a bastard, the narrator draws his revolver and places it between the marine’s eyes. He tells him that he won’t shoot because the marine is drunk. Everyone stops when they hear an explosion in the distance. The marine lieutenants leave in a jeep and fire their weapons skyward in defiance, until their magazines are empty.
The three drunken marines are foils for the narrator, Bon, and Man. The marines, however, have abandoned all hope for any political salvation. Their drunkenness is an anarchic reaction. The country has fallen into the hands of their declared enemy and the war is over, but they remain obligated to stay in uniform and to refer to their superiors by their titles. When the marine calls the narrator a “bastard,” it’s not merely an attack on his biracial identity, which they may perceive as reminders of French colonialism and America’s betrayal—it’s also an acknowledgement of how the narrator has also been betrayed and abandoned by the duplicitous South Vietnamese government.