THE BOY WHO PICKED THE BULLETS UP By Charles Nelson, Morrow, $13.95

Charles Nelson's first book skillfully crossbreeds two contemporary genres, the Vietnam novel and the gay novel. It's a sort of dishy Dispatches -- Dancer from Da Nang. Taking the form of letters written from August '66 through July '67 to four different correspondents (and signed "Relentlessly, Kurt"), The boy Who Picked the Bullets Up transcends its potential cliches. A tall, 24-year-old minor-league third baseman tapped for training by the Detroit Tigers, Kurt Strom joins the Navy and winds up a medical corpsman for the Marines in Vietnam; the Rimbaud poems that serve as epigraphs fro the book's four parts (one verse also provides the novel's title) presumably suggest the romance of war that inspired Kurt's otherwise unexplained enlistment. Along with a censored version of his daily routine, Kurt's letters to his feisty grandmother -- called "Mom" --offer advice on domestic warfare back in tropical Bonifay, Louisiana. To cousin Chloe, he confides hometown gossip as well as all the gory medical details (not for the squeamish). Ballplaying buddy Ach mostly receives accounts of Marine Corps machismo, while gay pen pal Paul gets the lowdown on all Kurt's sexual exploits, carefully concealed from the others.

The narrator's voice brims with wit, anger, and suppressed panic (big boys don't cry); it also reveals his remorseless racism and sexual exploitation. Honest if unsavory "Doc" Strom describes his favorite pastime -- seducing straight men -- with the same dispassion he uses to report a nightmare patrol in which two American regiments, mutually mistaken for VC, ambush one another, killing three men and wounding seven. What emerges from these letters is a shell-shocking, side-splitting wartime frolic as outrageous as M*A*S*H, only more appalling, since it's presented not as satire but as cold-blooded and, for the most part, believable fact. (Only the amorous adventures seem sometimes exaggerated, like picaresque pornography: Queen Kurtie always gets her man.) At least one letter could stand by itself as a short story, the tale of a corpsman busy saving lives in an impromptu ICU who is removed from duty for insulting an officer. The episode devastatingly portrays military madness as a dangerously elevated game of my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours.

Of course, the same elements that make Bullets a breezy, sometimes harrowing read reduce its ultimate effect. The novel lacks depth; the accumulation of lifelike incident could be balanced with contemplation. the four-part structure is arbitrary, and excerpt for the narrator few people spring to life -- least of all the correspondents, who are more constructs than characters. Most damaging, perhaps, the letters are not believable as letters; no one, not even a budding novelist, writes letters full of dialogue. Nonetheless, this is a promising fiction debut most impressive for its writing style, which is, well, relentlessly curt.

Village Voice, December 2, 1981