Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin by Dennis Latham

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Dennis Latham’s novel, Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin (YS Gazelle, 200 pp., $16, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is fiction, almost embarrassingly so. Latham is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam. The book’s blurbs refer to constant laughter provoked in readers by the crazy antics of the characters in this novel. I didn’t have that problem.

The plot of the novel—first published in 2009—concerns the plight of John Elvin, who is twenty-four years old and still a virgin. He is determined to change that status, but he has no idea how to go about doing that. Not a clue. The virgin he meets, Lori Anderson, is eager to help Elvin with his plight, but her eagerness does not translate to anything much happening with any dispatch.

There is a crazy Vietnam veteran in this novel, John’s brother. He was wounded in the war so that his head resembles a butt, which seems funny to everyone but me.

This book has large print and wide margins and can be read in a jiffy, but it still seemed slow going to me. It takes place the summer of 1982, “before HIV made sex an extreme risk, back when condoms were called rubbers,” Latham writes.

It was a different, primitive time. No cell phones, home computers, or satellite TV. So, I guess the book works as a cultural artifact of a certain time and place in America. But I did not find it to be funny.

—David Willson

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A Police Action by AA Freda

AA Freda served in the Army’s 5th Infantry Division in the Vietnam War during the period immediately after the Tet Offensive. Freda is the author of Goodbye Rudy Kazoody ,a coming-of-age novel. 

The main characters in Freda’s A Police Action (Dorrance Publishing, 254 pp., $25, hardcover; $16.75, paper; $9.99, Kindle)–which also is a coming-of-age tale–are nineteen-year-old Samantha (Sam) Powers and twenty-one year old James Coppi. It’s a “meet cute,” love-at-first-sight book. And it demonstrates that love is hard, very hard, especially when the female protagonist is pregnant by someone other than the young man she is in love with.

Both of these young people are confused. It doesn’t help matters that James is headed for Vietnam as an Army draftee. Is there any hope for a couple who met in a place called Country Honky Tonk in Colorado Springs?  As the cover blurb warns us, “uncertainty is the only certainty” in this story.

As a survivor of the 1960s, I recognized that era as a main character of this story. The author has done a good job of portraying the 1960s, including the effect the Vietnam War had on the country and the young people who were knocked topsy-turvy by it.

James is something of a con man. He operates as an Army Shylock, lending money before payday to all and sundry. He goes into the Army prepared to operate this way, and has trusted relatives who wire him the money he needs to keep his dirty little business going. I kept expecting to see him dragged into an alley and get his wrists broken, but (spoiler alert) that does not happen.

James does get shipped to Vietnam and does serve his time there, being at risk some of the time although he is mostly a rear echelon trooper. Freda offers a full discussion of the role of REMFs in the war, by the way, and gives some statistics.

To wit: “There’re eight to ten rear-echelon motherfuckers for every one of us up in the front.”

The huge base at Long Binh is accurately characterized as a Little America with tennis courts, nightclubs, restaurants, hot meals, and hot showers. Body count and shit-burning details get full discussion and ham and motherfuckers and fragging get more than a mention.

Also, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000 program—the one that resulted in underqualified men being drafted—is discussed, and said men are called “retards.”  Not a kind label for men who through no fault of their own ended up serving in the Army.

A A Freda

Serious subjects are dealt with, but mostly this is a novel of young love in which Sam and James struggle to survive in a world out of their control. I enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it, especially to young adults.

I am one no longer, but during the period portrayed in this novel I was, and I went through much of what our young lovers did.

My heart went out to them in the course of this sensitive story.

The author’s website is https://www.aafreda.com/a-police-action.html

–David Willson

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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Kristin Hannah has published a long list of well-received, best-selling novels, most with strong female characters. Her latest, The Great Alone (St. Martin’s Press, 448 pp. $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is no exception. Two people, a mother and daughter, are at the center of the novel. They revolve around the main male character, who is one of the most dangerous and seriously damaged Vietnam veterans in modern popular American fiction.

He beats his wife; he beats his lovely, thirteen-year-old daughter. These were hard scenes to read for this Vietnam veteran, damaged to an extent by my time in the military and having been raised by a Marine Corps veteran of Iwo Jima.

The Allbright family becomes convinced—or at least Ernt, the damaged veteran, does—that moving to Alaska will be the way for him to deal with his demons. Or to leave them behind in an America that he no longer wants to be a part of—and that seems to want no part of him.

It’s said repeatedly in the novel that Vietnam changed Ernt or that it broke him. He needs to be fixed, but there is no program set up to fix him. He refuses to deal with the VA, even to try to get a disability check. He’s too proud and haughty for that. He received medals during his tour in Vietnam, but Hannah makes little of that.

Hippies and peace freaks have taken over America and Ernt is characterized as a “baby killer.”  In a speech early in the novel, he says:  “I just want… more, I guess. Not a job. A life. I want to walk down the street and not have to worry about being called a baby-killer.  I want…” Hannah does not give Ernt the ability to state what he wants or needs, except that he is convinced that Alaska will be the place for him to have freedom and peace of mind.

The Allbright family arrives in Alaska completely unprepared for coping with the situation they find themselves in, unskilled in all the ways they need to survive. They find danger at every turn: bears; cold, deep icy rivers; not much food; and even less money.

People try hard to help them, but Ernt is not the sort who does well with getting help, nor with asking for help. His way of dealing with frustration is to anoint the problem with alcohol. He self-medicates at the slightest provocation.

His wife Leni and daughter Cora begin to wonder if they will survive in Alaska with Ernt as part of their family. They struggle for years, but eventually choose an extreme solution to their problem.

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Kristin Hannah

I found the novel engrossing and in some parts so tense that I had to close the book and catch my breath before continuing to read. Ernt is a realistically drawn Vietnam War veteran, one very much like several I have known well.

He is a veteran I avoided becoming, but if my circumstances had been different during my tour, I could imagine becoming that sort of veteran. Even having worked a rear-echelon job failed to prepare me to re-enter America effortlessly and with any kind of grace or equanimity.

Read this book and see if you recognize yourself or a friend in the character of Ernt. It could very well be the case.

The author’s website is kristinhannah.com

—David Willson

Sapphire Pavilion by David E. Grogan

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David Grogan served on active duty in the post-Vietnam-War United States Navy for more than twenty-six years as a Navy Judge Advocate. He’s now retired, but his experiences in prosecuting and defending court-martial cases around the world inform and enrich his writing of legal thrillers, the first of which was The Siegel Dispositions.

That book introduced Grogan’s main character, ex-JAG Corps officer Steve Stilwell. The Sapphire Pavilion (Camel Press, 280 pp., $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), another mystery thriller, involves Stilwell fighting to get justice for his old buddy, Ric Stokes, who is incarcerated for possessing heroin in Vietnam. Stokes was sharing a hotel room with Ryan Eversall, now dead of an overdose while with a prostitute, herself now among the missing.

Stilwell is convinced this is a frame-up and travels to Saigon to get to the bottom of the affair.  The bad guys who set up his friend immediately go after Stilwell. There’s a file involved in this thriller labelled “The Sapphire Pavilion,” a catchy and convenient title for this book.

The villains underestimate Stilwell, who refuses to roll over and play dead. Helping him fight these forces of evil is a plucky and lovely female former Army pilot, Casey, who has one leg—a beautiful one—due to injury in a helicopter accident.

Stilwell gets through all of this derring-do in one piece, but it seems possible that Casey could lose her other leg. I won’t give that plot point away. It also looks as though our hero, Steve, might lose his wife, who has had it with his globe-trotting and consorting with beautiful female spies.

David Grogan

The case file for Sapphire Pavilion looks as though it will be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s McGuffins, but it works well enough to carry the book’s plot along until the exciting end.

If you enjoyed the previous book in this series, you’ll love this one, too.  Read and enjoy.

The author’s website is davidegrogan.com

—David Willson

 The Circumstantial Man By Gary Reilly

Running Meter Press was established in 2012 to publish novels left behind by Gary Reilly when he died. During his lifetime Reilly had published only one short story and no novels. The Circumstantial Man (255 pp., paper) marks the twelfth posthumous Gary Reilly novel Running Meter has published in the last six years: a trilogy about his time in the United States Army as a military policeman; the Private Palmer novels: and eight novels about Murph, a Denver taxi cab driver (The Asphalt Warriors series).

The Circumstantial Man is a stand-alone novel about Pete Larkey, a sad sack who is divorced, out of work, and the owner of an automobile that has a dead battery. Pete is so much of a sad sack that he doesn’t think of wiggling battery cables to see if that would enable him to start his car. Throughout this novel—which chronicles the various misadventures that this failure brings down on his benighted head—Pete takes himself to task for not knowing how to do this and for failing to do it.

The publishers of this fine novel call it a suspense thriller, which I think is not really accurate.  This is a novel of the modern human condition. Late in the book, Pete says, “In my experience, things related to hope rarely work out.”  There are many such pronouncements by Pete, and I jotted many of them down.

He sometimes is capable of looking on the bright side, though. For instance, Reilly has him digging at gunpoint what he thinks will be his own grave, and he remarks that at least the soft soil is easy to penetrate with his shovel. We learn a lot about how the world works, at least the world that Pete inhabits, which is a world very similar to my own.

There are many references in this novel to the time that Pete spent in the Army. At one point, he notes that incarceration is similar to service in the military.

He mentions Audie Murphy twice and Grendel and Beowulf once each. He quotes Jack Kerouac as saying that the Army “couldn’t hire shits to push mops, make beds, KP.”  Pete also debates the differences between Skippy peanut butter and Peter Pan. He prefers Skippy. The villain who holds him at gunpoint prefers Peter Pan because, he says, Skippy tastes too much of peanuts.

The publishers tell us that there won’t be another novel featuring Pete Larkey, but there will soon be another novel with Murph the cab driver as the hero.

I can’t wait.

For more info on Reilly and his literary output go to the publisher’s website.

—David Willson

Through My Daughter’s Eyes by Julia Dye

Through My Daughter’s Eyes (Warriors Publishing Group, 190 pp. $14.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is a terrific, fast-moving young adult novel that deals with the impact of war and post-war issues on a military family. It’s set in the present day and told in the first person by a middle school girl named Abbie.

First-time novelist Julia Dye’s father served in World War II, and she writes with authority in the voice of young Abbie as she wrestles with serious growing-up issues—as well as the tribulations all families face before, during, and after a parent is deployed to a war zone.

When things get particularly tough, Abbie has a sit down with her grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran. He tells her of his own difficulties after coming home from the war.

“It was really hard on me,” he says. “I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t understand why I was hated. I lost friends over there, too. Wasn’t easy. I began drinking [and worse]…. It took me a long time to realize what I was doing. If it wasn’t for your grandmother ,I might not have ever gotten better.”

What comes next is believable and poignant—a good capsule description of this entire worthy YA novel.

Dye, the Vice President and CFO of Warriors, Inc., the top Hollywood military advising company, also wrote Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons from Marine Corps NCOs.

—Marc Leepson

 

Syllables of Rain By D. S. Lliteras

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Syllables of Rain (Rainbow Ridge Books, 152 pp., $16.95, paper) is a poetic novel of pure genius by the novelist and poet D.S. Lliteras. A former Navy combat corpsman with the First Recon Marines in the Vietnam War, Lliteras received a Bronze Star for his courage under fire.

This work surpasses his earlier books that dealt with the Vietnam War: 613 West Jefferson, in which a returning Vietnam veteran tries to make sense of the terrible world he has returned to, and Viet Man, which shows what veterans dealt with while serving in Vietnam. Both are master works.  But neither book grapples with the things that Syllables of Rain takes on.

Syllables of Rain should be placed on the book shelf next to Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn as an antidote to giant books that seem to last as long as the war itself did.  Syllables of Rain lets the reader know what happened to Marines after the war, experiences weighed down by great sadness—as Matterhorn is burdened with blood, thunder, and death.

Llewellyn and Cookie, the friends at the heart of Syllables of Rain, are easily imagined in the world of Matterhorn and it is easy to imagine them buoyed up by Jansen, a larger-than-life Zen master who influences the rest of their lives. Llewellyn and Cookie had intersected years before, but their lives were ordained by fate to become intertwined yet again.  They stand, confronting each other on a street in Baltimore, face to face with their mortality and with assessing what their lives have measured up to.

Will they have a future with the women they love? Will they come to terms with their shared past and go on to deal successfully with their war and their emotions? They and we can only hope.  Some of us will even pray that they will. Llewellyn asks the question, “Is it wrong to be lost?”

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D.S. Lliteras

My favorite kind of Vietnam War book is short, poetical, and filled with hard-fought truths.  Every page would be purest poetry, quarried from the marble of experience. This is that book. D. S. Lliteras brings his unique genius to bear on the world of the Vietnam War veteran, sometimes homeless, often heartsick from love lost.

Viet Man is a gritty in-country novel; Syllables of Rain is the poetic novel of a lifetime of coping with war, of struggling “to make peace with Vietnam” with the war that “separated us from everybody else.”

I’d thought that D. S. Lliteras’ previous book, Viet Man, was un-toppable, but I was dead wrong.

—David Willson