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Rivers's strong women try too hard to be like men

Intimate Enemies, by Caryl Rivers. New York: E.P. Dutton. 259 pp. $17.95. The women in Caryl Rivers's novel ``Intimate Enemies'' are trying too hard to be men. While they compete to see who can come up with the wittiest observation about life in the 1980s, the men in the novel steal the show.

``Intimate Enemies'' is about a Vietnam veteran and an idealistic protester who fall in love 15 years after the war has ended. Both Mark Claymore and Jessie McGrath have been married before, and it is a question of trust, not differing polit-ical ideologies, that tangles up their love.

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The novel begins to work as Mark deals with the pain of opening up old emotional wounds from Vietnam when he becomes close to Jessie.

Mark and a friend from the veterans' hospital have managed to bury their war memories for 15 years. Now, despite their success in life, Vietnam is an issue again. Flashbacks and nightmares slam them up against moral questions the war left unanswered.

Ironically it is the men's friendship, rather than that of Jessie and her college friend Andrea, that rings true in the book. As in Rivers's previous novels, the friendship of the women is vital to their survival and success in a man's world. Yet the ties between the men lie deeper and stronger.

Perhaps in Rivers's efforts to show that women can be just as irreverent about life as men, she doesn't rip off enough of their sophisticated veneer. The dialogue between Jessie and Andrea snaps back and forth with dry one-liners, but after a while it is hard to believe that women this savvy can't deal with their problems.

Jessie comes across more realistically when Rivers describes her as a young girl. Inserts of diary entries tell about how she became a war protester in college. Her awk-wardness in dealing with a world that doesn't quite fit with what books, Roman Catholicism, and her mother have told her is honest and real.

Rivers also includes an entertaining view of small-time academia in the highbrow university town of Boston. The politicking and dramatics of college administration make the sidelines of the main plot colorful.

On the whole the novel leans toward sitcom too much to be more than an interesting look at life in the '80s. Still, sections of the book promise that better things could come, if Rivers would only stop trying to prove women's strength and follow her storyteller's instincts.

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Mary Jo Hill is on the Monitor staff.

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