Red Stick One by Kenneth Kirkeby

Kenneth Kirkeby served in the Marine Corps as an intelligence specialist in the Vietnam War. He draws from that experience in Red Stick (K. Kirkeby, 272 pp., $15.95, paper), a fine thriller/adventure novel.

The book opens in April of 1970 on “the plateau” in Vietnam. I love precise writing in fiction and this novel is written with precision on every page. Whether it’s a recently shot deer being skinned out or coffee being made, the reader is involved in all the details and they are rendered in exact and descriptive language.

We are introduced to Staff Sergeant Virgil Cleary on the first page. In the course of this book we learn a lot about him. As the novel opens Virgil Cleary is a lance corporal in his fifth month in country, and the point man and leader of a five-man recon team.

I was immediately involved and eager to learn the outcome of the team’s struggle to reach the plateau amid rock slides and deep finger ridges. Things do not go well, but it is not until deep into the novel that we revisit this episode in Virgil’s life. Before that, we spend a lot of time with Virgil as he evades the enemy and eventually is rescued.

Virgil is a man of few words, (he is half Creek Indian and was raised in isolation by his grandmother), but occasionally offers profound statements. One example: “War is mostly about having friends and losing them.”

A U.S. Marine Vietnam War recon team

After we hear about Virgil’s boyhood and his adoption (of sorts) by a foster father, the novel becomes an on-the-road story novel in which Virgil journeys across the country (mostly hitchhiking) from the east to west pursuing the killer of his foster father. He has many adventures. We encounter a Vietnam veteran who sells guns in Butte, Montana, and tells Virgil that “guys at the airport are spitting at guys like you and me when we are rotated back.”

This rousing thriller/adventure novel of pursuit has a hero who is easy to root for. I know I did. He’s a little guy, an underdog, half Indian with dark skin, who is often underestimated by adversaries. I’d like to see him in another novel.

I am a big fan of the outdoor adventure novels of C. J. Box, and Kirkeby—a VVA member—belongs in that lofty league. I highly recommend this novel to those who are looking for a book to take their mind off of their troubles. It is the perfect escape from the humdrum.

—David Willson

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