Asphalt Warrior Series by Gary Reilly

I recommend that you buy the five novels that make up Gary Reilly’s Asphalt Warrior series on Kindle and read them in order of publication. I didn’t do it that way. I first read books three, four and five, which we received from the publisher, Running Meter Press, in paperback. I enjoyed them so much I bought books one and two to read on my Kindle.

Gary Reilly died two years ago of cancer with a large steamer trunk full of unpublished novels. He had only published a short story during his decades of working hard at the craft of writing while working as a Denver cab driver. After his death, Running Meter Press undertook the project of publishing Reilly’s eleven Asphalt Warrior series. Five of the eleven are now available.

Reilly was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and served two years, one of which was in Vietnam as an MP. The Asphalt Warrior series is not set in Vietnam. The five books contain many references to the Army, but no direct Vietnam War references.

Reilly’s Army references focus on his hero, Brendan Murphy, who remained a private for two years due to his inability to follow orders. No surprise there. Murphy also mentions screaming sergeants, mopping floors, and endless KP duties. He is unable to figure out how to operate the machine that peeled potatoes, a shortcoming I share with Murphy and which drove the cooks nuts when I served endless KP duties.

The series title is tongue in cheek. Our hero, called “Murph” by everyone,  is no dystopian, apocalyptic guy. He is a quiet, unassuming Denver cab driver. a self-described nosy parker, driven by his Catholic guilt to get involved in the problems of his fares. He lives a solitary life cooking burgers for his meals and watching endless reruns of Gilligan’s Island, mainly to check out Mary Ann in her short shorts. He reaches his third-floor apartment by the fire escape to avoid getting acquainted with his neighbors.

The late Gary Reilly

The first book, Asphalt Warrior (200 pp., $14.95), is basically an introduction to the world of Murph, and the dry observational humor that propels the books to come.  Just about every page has something worth being amused by. Often there is a laugh-aloud moment. When my wife asked me what I was laughing about, I’d read a sentence to her and she’d just stare at me. That led me to believe that the context is necessary for complete pleasure in the mild adventures that Murph has in Denver and on his occasional field trips elsewhere.

Book two, Ticket to Hollywood (216 pp., $14.95), is just what the title promises. Murph is just as funny in La La Land as he is in Denver—that is, very funny, and his comments about that special American place are always on the mark. Murph goes to Hollywood to retrieve a teen-aged girl who thinks she is going to be a big movie star.

In Book Three, The Heart of Darkness Club (200 pp., $14.95), Murph gets involved in the life of a suicidal homeless man, and the Denver police become convinced that Murph has murdered the guy. As a result, Murph loses the best job in the world, driving a cab in Denver. So he has to find the guy and prove he didn’t kill him.

Book Four, Home for the Holidays (192 pp., $14.95), is my favorite of the five. I read it in the days right before Christmas, and enjoyed Reilly (and Murph’s) take on the pleasures of spending the holiday season with family. I took three pages of notes on the stuff that struck me as funny in this book, but space does not allow me to share them here.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a very funny read about this subject. You can enjoy it without reading the other books and make perfect sense of it.

The fifth book, Doctor Lovebeads 304 pp., $16.95), features Murph trying to rescue a couple of teen-aged girls from a cult they fall in with, mostly due to Murph’s meddling. At least his Catholic guilt leads him to think so.

It is a shame that Gary Reilly died with these fine novels still in his steamer trunk. He would have enjoyed reading all the positive reviews that are sure to come.

I also feel badly that his two Vietnam War novels have not been published, as I suspect they must be as good as these excellent five novels are. I’m guessing they also contain Reilly’s dry, sardonic observations on the nature of modern war.

I hope that Running Meter Press publishes them sometime soon. Meanwhile, I highly recommend these five books. I read them in less than a week, and enjoyed every page. I was sad when I finished, and will eagerly buy the rest of the series as soon as they are released.

The publisher’s website it: http://theasphaltwarrior.com

—David Willson

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On War: The Best Military Histories

The Pritzker Military Library and Museum in Chicago’s Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing honors “writers whose work adds to the public’s understanding of military history and the role played by the military in civil society.” The list of the award’s seven winners (it dates from 2007) is a who’s who of distinguished military historians, along with a former war correspondent (Rick Atkinson) and one novelist (Tim O’Brien, 2013’s recipient).

The handsomely produced new book On War; The Best of Military Histories (Pritzker Military Museum and Library, 264 pp., $27) contains seven excerpts from the work of the award winners. That august group is made up of the historians James McPherson, Carlo D’Este, Max Hastings, Allan Millett, and Gerhard Weinberg, as well as the award-winning journalist Atkinson and O’Brien, the most honored Vietnam veteran novelist.

The editors of this top-quality volume—including former Vietnam magazine editor Roger Vance who served as the book’s managing editor, and Michael Robbins, the editor of Military History magazine, the book’s editor—chose the perfect excerpt from O’Brien’s work: “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried.

As the introduction to this section notes:

The excerpt “is a characteristically sharp response to the challenge of how to convey in words on paper a true sense of the surreal blend of horror, boredom, humor, fear, love, brutality, and grace that was combat in Vietnam.”

In this work of fiction which contains many elements of the truth, O’Brien discourses on what is real and what is not when it comes to war stories.

“In many cases,” he writes, “a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.

“In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.”

—Marc Leepson

Death of a Green Soldier by Michael Wright

Michael Wright’s Death of a Green Soldier (WestBow Press, 374 pp., $24.95) is a work of religious fiction. Wright, the cover blurb notes, “has worked as a teacher, youth pastor and therapist for adjudicated youth.”  We are also told that he and his wife “live and attend church in the Midwest.”

Wright has based this novel on his own true story of military service during the Cold War,as well as his drug addiction,and subsequent redemption. The main character, Mark Welch, shares his initials. Welch joins the Army in the 1970s, ends up in Germany, and swiftly falls into bad company.

By page three the issue of Christian faith and spirituality begins to dominate the narrative. By the end of the first chapter, Mark Welch has started to be a heavy drug user, smoking bowl after bowl of hash with his roommate, Kurt.  By the end of chapter three, his life has become all about drug use. He has a warehouse job, endlessly organizing and arranging materials on shelves. We are never told exactly what these materials are.

Mark becomes a full-fledged drug user by the end of chapter four. His drugs of choice are hashish, cocaine, LSD, and speed.  He soon becomes a full-time drug dealer. “Getting caught,” he thinks, is “just a matter of time.”

Jimmy Jones, a CID agent, goes undercover to try to catch the drug dealers. But that ends when Jones goes flying off the roof of a tall building. Mark later jumps into a deep hole while stoned and seriously sprains both ankles. This injury gives him a lot of time to contemplate his life. He thinks about his violent father and brother and dwells on the image of a demon who has been visiting him.

This novel was an eye-opener for me. I spent twenty-one months in the Army in 1966-67 and served in Vietnam, but I never used drugs and never saw any drug use. In the Army life in Germany presented by Wright, drug use is common and the main character is a serious drug user. This becomes known to the Army, but does not result in the sort of treatment he would have gotten in Vietnam—that is, a court martial and bad time in the stockade.

Because of his drug use, Mark is dismissed from the Army, but in a special program, and receives an honorable discharge. He returns to the small Michigan village where his aunt lives with his younger brother. There he gets a second chance.

I paid special attention to the mentions of the Vietnam War in this book. There were several, including a mention of the movie Green Berets, but World War II got a lot more ink. Welch comments in passing that he had a cousin who had served in Vietnam. He also talks about his treatment by Army lifers. He says they were cleaning house of drug users because of how the Vietnam War went.

That’s a cryptic thought, but I guess I get it. He tells his aunt that the Army has too many troops in Europe due to the withdrawal from Vietnam, which is why they sent him home early. A sweet lady, she pretends to buy the story.

This is the first religious novel I have read dealing with the American Army in Europe in the 1970s. It is an Army I would want no part of. I was amazed how the author combined the spiritual search of Mark Welch with his heavy drug use, often on the same page.

Welch uses hash from the beginning of the book until near the end when he leaves Germany, and he never breaks with his drug-using companions. The moral judgments I expected never happened.

I highly recommend this book to those who are curious about Wright’s view of army service in Germany in the 1970s.

—David Willson

War Without End, Amen By Tim Coder

Tim Coder served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1969-70 as an infantry squad leader and later with the 1st Battalion/3rd Brigade Information Office. War Without End, Amen: A Vietnam Story (CreateSpace, 518 pp., $18.99, paper; $$4.99, Kindle) is his first novel. It is not based on a true story. As the author says, “The people and the events in this book are products of the author’s imagination.”  

War Without End is a complex, well-written novel which goes back and forth between present-day America and war-time South Vietnam.

The character who links the past and the present is a ghost named Private Myron Senger. He died in Vietnam and since then has wandered there in the boonies “fighting gooks” stuck in a sort of purgatory.  “Wanna,” Senger whines constantly, both when he is alive and when he is a ghost.

“I’m too short for this,” he says at least a thousand times.  The “wanna” refers to his most-often whining plea to be assigned a job in the rear.

We are told that “it all started with Senger forgetting to pack a new radio battery.” He was the RTO, after insisting on being replaced as the point man because he was too short for that. He was also obsessed with not dying a virgin. That obsession is what led to forgetting the radio battery when his squad went out into the boonies at the behest of the colonel.

Tim Coder

This main point of the book is well distilled by the old saying that my Marine Corps father repeated over and over when I was a kid: “For want of the nail, the shoe was lost. For want of the shoe, the horse was lost,” and so on.  If there is a single point in this he novel, that could be it.

Senger’s lapse with the spare battery leads to the squad wandering in the wilderness of I Corps near the A Shau Valley for what seems like forever with “puny rations and no reliable source of water.” The events of that episode in their lives mark the two survivors for the rest of their miserable lives.

A Vietnam War literature rarity in this section is the introduction of an important Vietnamese character, Private Phong, an enemy deserter who we spend a lot of time with and who speaks increasingly good English. This section goes on a bit long, but is my favorite part of the book.

This novel is so huge and encompasses so much that I can’t begin to tell all that it contains, but I will attempt to give some of the flavor. ARVN troops are referred to as “worthless lousy ARVNs” and as “coward bastards.” A body count-obsessed colonel personifies the “lifers [who] order something dumb and everyone just goes along and follows the dumb-ass orders. Then people die.”

There are burning shit barrels sizzling in the rain, many references to peace demonstrators back home chanting “baby killers,”  C-rats (but no ham and limas), leeches, dinks, slopeheads, gooks, fragging, cutting off VC ears for trophies, cherry LT’s, the Domino Theory, Zippos, and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”  Not to mention,“It’s the only war we got.”   Also there are a slew of oddly named grunts: Christmas, Snake Eyes, Rosy, Ruby, Wanna, The Assassin, and The Jackal.

This is a novel with a strong moral conscience, expressed often by Murphy, the main character, who says, “Most every grunt scorned hardcore remfs. But most at one time or another would have sold their OD souls to be one.”

There it is.

—David Willson

The Longest Rescue by Glenn Robins


In The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson (University Press of Kentucky, 259 pp., $31.50, hardcover, $19.25 e-book) the historian Glenn Robins brings a scholarly treatment to his subjects’s time as a Vietnam War POW, as well as the rest of his life.

Unlike most Vietnam War POWs Robinson was an enlisted man. In fact, he holds the record for the longest term as an enlisted Vietnam War prisoner: eight years. After several stateside deployments, he worked out of Thailand as part of USAF air rescue crews, manually (that is, looking down directly into the jungle) helping chopper pilots as they lowered hundred-foot cables to downed pilots. Before the fateful day in 1965 when he himself was shot down, Robinson had received a Silver Star not for his exploits—as Robinson, a modest man, would be certain to say—but for doing his job well.

William Robinson’s capture resulted in the iconic photo of him (which appears on the cover), a big man, with his head downcast, being ushered at gunpoint down a village path by a girl not half his size. The photo of Robinson and “the guerrilla girl” had great propaganda value for the North Vietnamese, symbolizing a small nation—North Vietnam—standing up to an overwhelming enemy, America.

The photo was entirely staged shortly after Robinson’s capture, and the girl, Nguyen Kim Lai, knew no more about what was going on than Robinson did. Robins, a thorough writer, relates how Robinson and Kim Lai met again in 1995 when a Japanese documentary crew brought them together. They had a peaceful, cordial meeting, and it might even be said that they struck up a friendship.

Robinson spent his eight years in various prisons around Hanoi. Some were new, some were primitive, and some a vestige of the French era. He was tortured—most damagingly, with the rope torture in which his arms were yanked behind his back at the elbows, then tied to the ceiling. Horrible at this must have been, it was the prolonged bad food, and the scarcity of it, that was perhaps his worst ordeal. Robins delivers a harrowing account of Robinson’s appendectomy, which he endured with only a local anesthetic.

Robins, a history professor at Georgia Southwestern State University, also weaves in the stories of other POWs. Most fascinating of these may be that of Marine Lt. Col. Edison Miller and Navy Commander Walter Eugene Wilber, who—presumably to avoid torture—went over to the other side and tried to convince other POWs to do the same. These two are mentioned fairly often in POW memoirs, but they probably deserve their own book.

Robinson was well liked by other prisoners. He was cheerful, practical, and had a good sense of humor. A gifted mechanic, he kept things running. These characteristics would describe him in civilian life, too.

William Robinson signing copies of The Longest Rescue

His father spent his POW pay, but Robinson forgave him—and kept forgiving him. When he returned, with a battlefield commission as a lieutenant, Robinson worked through his life-lasting injuries, and made a career in the Air Force. As a civilian, he took on ordinary jobs, put up with a difficult marriage before settling into a good one, and supported POW/MIA causes.

In his ordinariness, he’s an extraordinary man.

—John Mort

The Tenth Circle: A Blaine McCracken Book by Jon Land

Fans of Jon Land’s Blaine McCracken thrillers are in luck because there is a new one in this long series, The Tenth Circle (Open Road, 536 pp., $16.99, paper). There must be at least a dozen of them by now, and if you are like me, you have been waiting with bated breath for the new one.

This one is no letdown. It’s an engrossing and edge-of-the-seat thriller. As the back cover blurb puts it: “Blaine McCracken races to stop terrorists from unleashing an ancient weapon of unimaginable power at the president’s State of the Union speech.” Sure, this is a preposterous a plot as any that have preceded it, but isn’t that what we love about these books?

Once again Land shows off his powers as the author. He conveys the magnetism of the main character, Blaine McCracken, who is far from a cookie cutter super hero, but who always comes through in the end to save the planet. And he does so in ways and with a style that keeps readers who enjoy this kind of book enthralled.

Jon Land

This reader is helped along by the fact that Blaine is a Vietnam veteran who is now in his sixties but who shows no signs of letting up. He still does amazing stunts. He is still that same exiled agent who knows fourteen ways to kill a man in less than two seconds. That is the way I want him to be—true to his history.  

His trusty sidekick, Johnny Wareagle, is back, too. As is the usual worthy bad guy.  A thriller without a bad guy of the shape and dimensions of the Reverend Jeremiah Rule is not a thriller worthy of the name. Land continues to be a master at creating monstrous bad guys. 

There is a similarity in the books in this series, but that is what I love about them. They all move fast and are such fun to read that it is a compliment to the author to say that I’d have to go back and reread all the books to sort them out one from another. But I would be happy to do so.

I have, in fact, done just. I have reread more than one of the McCracken books by accident and loved the read the second time as much I had the first.

For those who have not read any books in the series series, what are you waiting for? If you love the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child, then you will love the McCracken books. They have many of the vital elements that make the Reacher books addictive for thriller enthusiasts. I recommend you buy all of the McCracken books and read them in order. This is a series that improves as it goes along. 

I don’t know anything about Jon Land’s military background. I do know he is a superior writer of thrillers and I hope he lives a long and productive life.

His website is  www.jonlandbooks.com

—David Willson

One Hundred Victories by Linda Robinson

Linda Robinson’s One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare (Public Affairs, 344 pp., $28.99) is an excellent and well-organized look at special operations in the war in Afghanistan. The author—a special ops expert who is a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation—has taken a very complex war and made it understandable. Robinson makes only a few references to the Vietnam War, but to the student of that conflict similarities between it and Afghanistan jump right off the page.

Lack of strategic planning, disagreement among high-level officers, support of questionable Afghan leaders, and a general ignorance of Afghan culture have factored in making this the longest war in U.S. history.  Perhaps the greatest mistake, Robinson contends, was making it an American coalition war instead of an Afghan war.

Robinson has done an admirable job describing the heroism, tenacity, and selflessness of American Special Ops men and women. She takes the reader through the provinces in Afghanistan and shows how small groups of dedicated fighters and neighborhood planning can make a difference. Descriptions of combat and death rival any work of fiction.

Linda Robinson

She includes several quotes that this writer won’t forget, such as this one from T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia): “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

One can easily substitute “Afghanistan” for “Arabia.”

Another quote that hit me was from a female soldier standing at attention while caskets were loaded into a plane: “There are so many,” she says with pain in her voice.

Linda Robinson’s final sentence reminds us to remember all those killed and their families in such wars. I would add that it’s especially important for those who are quick to advocate for war but do not wish to put their own sons and daughters in harm’s way to remember the lost.

Robinson writes that she started out two years ago to chronicle America’s special operations forces’ largest initiative since the Vietnam War.  She clearly has accomplished that goal.

—Joseph Reitz