The Discharge by Gary Reilly

Gary Reilly died in 2011. He left behind a treasure trove of unpublished novels. Among those is a trilogy which relates to his military service. Reilly’s protagonist in that trilogy is named Pvt. Palmer. In the first novel, Palmer is drafted and trained to be a military policeman.  In the second, The Detachment, Palmer serves his year in Southeast Asia.

In the recently published The Discharge (Running Meter Press, $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) Pvt. Palmer is “back in the world,” and like most of us who served in uniform in Vietnam, he confronts a new America, one that is very different from the one he left behind a year earlier. Reilly accurately portrays the confusion of Palmer as he struggles to find his direction home.

The strategies that served him well in Vietnam don’t help much in Denver, San Francisco, or Los Angeles where he goes to pursue a movie career. Palmer’s “California dreamin’” comes to naught and soon enough he’s back in Denver behind the wheel of a cab.

Our hero had some fun adventures in California—Strother Martin, Gunsmoke, and the La Brea Tar Pits come into play. It’s a near thing that Palmer doesn’t end up in the pits along with the saber-toothed tigers and the ancient giant tree sloths. He also played phone tag with Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, John Steinbeck, and Woody Allen.

Palmer’s return to America also involves his fear about his role in baby killing. He tries to play an early Animals album that has “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” on it at a party, but is told that it  was not “the right sound for now.” No sounds Palmer comes up with are, as he tries very hard to become a part of things, but all his efforts fail miserably.

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Gary Reilly

No book I’ve read better captures the anomie that poor, befuddled Palmer struggles with. Behind the wheel of a taxi, Palmer finds his place in America—permanently on the move, always changing his destination—a destination chosen by others.

The Discharge prepares us for The Asphalt Warrior series—eight books so far—all of them comedy classics.  Read them after you read this one, if you haven’t already.

The publisher’s website is theasphaltwarrior.com

—David Willson

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The Detachment by Gary Reilly

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The Detachment (Running Meter Press, 536 pp., $22.95, paper; $9.49, Kindle) is the second novel in a trilogy about military life by Gary Reilly, who died in 2011, so all of his many novels have been published since his death. The first was The Enlisted Men’s Club, which we reviewed favorably in Books in Review II.

The trilogy is based on Reilly’s experiences as an Army M.P.  The Detachment is set in Qui Nhon where Private Palmer, the antihero of the trilogy, rarely leaves the base. Still, the Vietnam War is always right there.

When Palmer arrives in Vietnam, he is still a private, due to things that didn’t go quite right at his previous duty station at the Presidio in San Francisco. His observations upon arriving in-country are familiar to this reader. He describes “a smell furnace of a city” and comments often that “somebody is making money off this war.” That comment is made after he sees Coca-Cola and Anheuser Busch ads.  Jammed M-16s and shit burning, as well as the tale of the VC putting hand grenades in Jeep gas tanks, get mentioned.

Reilly’s language is strong and on the mark, as it was in his previous military novel. He encounters a “curtain of heat and a stink so strange that he cannot place it.” He’s in Vietnam, due to a wish “not to weasel out of the war.” He has no idea why he is an M.P. He’d assumed that as a draftee, he’d be in the infantry.

He is in the M.P’s, which he states over and over are hated by everyone in Vietnam who is not an M. P. I think back to my thirteen months in Vietnam. Those who worked in our section, for the Inspector General, assumed that everyone hated us, too. Nobody likes those who inspect them. I guess nobody likes those who arrest and handcuff them either.

Because of his low rank, Palmer is assigned to the traffic section. He sits at a desk dealing with statistics and forms for his entire tour of duty. He is the guy in charge of paperwork. “It makes him feel pissant and chicken shit,” Reilly writes,”and he likes it.”

I also sat at a desk in Vietnam for all those months I was there, and Reilly captures perfectly how I felt about my time there. I liked it, too. He got to gaze at the South China Sea on a daily basis. He was the traffic man, and he did a good job.

The last half of the book reminds me of that classic Vietnam War novel by Tim Mahoney, We’re Not Here, set in the Mekong Delta in 1975. Few novels deal with the last days of the American war in Vietnam. The Detachment also gives the reader a good sense of what the U.S. withdrawal involved.

Palmer spent a lot of time in the library “trying to get a fix on the Vietnam War,” but that ends when the library is packed up and shipped home. The withdrawal was done the Army way, “slow and complicated.”

Reilly gives the reader an immersion in this aspect of the Army throughout this fine novel of service in the rear. I add it to the short list of worthy novels of the REMF in Vietnam. Service in the rear was the majority experience, although it is seldom given respect or space in the Vietnam War canon.

41pzr12besol-_sx321_bo1204203200_Palmer says that he has no good war stories to take home. He has many stories of drug use, including a brief flirtation of his with heroin. Palmer descends deeply into alcohol use, but due to a “terrible weekend scare,” goes cold turkey and becomes a model soldier. He enters Vietnam convinced he will die there, but realizes “statistically speaking, his fear of dying in Vietnam is ludicrous.” He gets the short-timer shakes, but does not give in to them.

This second book in the trilogy ends with the Freedom Bird taking off and Palmer reading his paperback. I am already eager for the next and final book in this series. I assume it will be about what Palmer finds when he gets home to the Land of the Big PX.

I salute Mark Stevens and Mike Keefe, who retrieved this great novel of Vietnam from long-obsolete software, ancient drives and floppies, and pieced it together from that material. They also found a “single Reilly-bound copy at the bottom of an old box of his belongings.”

It was in bad shape, but you’d never know it from this beautiful book, another labor of love from Running Meter press.

—David Willson

Pick Up at Union Station by Gary Reilly

Pick Up at Union Station (Running Meter Press, 274 pp., $16.95, paper) is the seventh book in The Asphalt Warrior Series. Murph, the Denver cabdriver featured in the first six books of this unique and totally fun series by Gary Reilly, is back.

It’s a Seattle sort of a night in Denver.  “It was April, and it was raining buckets.” After Murph says that, he then discourses on clichés as is his inclination, having spent seven years on the G. I. Bill earning a degree in English.

Murph has a party to pick up at Union Station, as the title warns. The party’s name is Zelner, and so it begins. What ensues is another Madcap Murph book, in which our hero gets involved with the problems of one of his fares. The problem Zelner has is death, which happens in the back seat of Murph’s cab.

The novel is filled with Murph’s usual ruminations about the nature of existence. “When you drive a taxi for a living,” he says, “you rarely get the opportunity to feel ecstatic.”

Very soon the reader is given the first clue that Murph is an Army veteran: “I’ve often wondered whether ‘Army joke’ is an oxymoron, but let’s move on.”

Murph’s creator, Gary Reilly, was an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. The next Gary Reilly book will be out later this year or early next year. It’s called The Detachment and ninety-five per cent of it takes place in Vietnam. It’s written in the voice of an MP Private named Palmer.

You could say that Gary Reilly is doing his best work—now that he’s been dead a few years. All of his novels have been published posthumously. By the way, Reilly was an MP in Vietnam.

I kept track of the references to Army service in Pick Up at Union Station. There are more than two dozen, and they tend to be funny as is most of the book. The threat in the book is a serious one—foreign spies attempting to destroy America. But Murph’s muddling and meddling with American heroes who work to defeat dangerous foreigners provides humor. Spoiler alert: his meddling does not lead to the downfall of America. That was a relief.

Murph descends into near madness and questions his own sanity late in the book. But without ruining the suspense, I will say that I expect to see Murph back in another Asphalt Warrior book in a year or so. I eagerly await him. He is a survivor and a hero unlike any other in modern fiction.

For more info on the late Gary Reilly, go to theasphaltwarrior.com

—David Willson

Dark Night of the Soul by Gary Reilly

 

Dark Night of the Soul (Running Meter Press, 226 pp., $14.95, paper) is the sixth book in Gary Reilly’s Asphalt Warrior series. 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.

Gary Reilly died of colon cancer in 2011. I’ll always suspect that Agent Orange is the culprit that did him in.

He left twenty-five unpublished books. The ones I have read, all of the Asphalt Warrior series published so far—along with the first novel in his Vietnam War-related series—support the contention of the Denver Post that Reilly is a master wordsmith. All of Reilly’s books provoke me to laugh out loud—and I am not easily provoked.

The hero of this book (and of all those that preceded it in this series), is Murph, a Denver cab driver who grapples with a world that always challenges him. Very soon in this novel, Murph informs the reader that it has been twenty-five years since he had dashed around in the Army in a panic due to sergeants and bugles.

“My two years in the Army alone would fill the Encyclopedia of Goldbricking,’ Murph confesses. Another of Murph’s pronouncements: “The only benefit to hard work is money.” I won’t argue with the wisdom of that.

He also says: “I was the living embodiment of pure evil.”

That was one of the Murphy’s lines that made me laugh out loud. A little old lady was in the hospital with cardiac arrest accusing Murph of threatening to hit her for trying to pay him with a pan full of pennies. We know he did no such thing, but the police do not.

I am already looking forward to reading Book Seven in this series: Pickup at Union Station. Chapter one of Pickup is included at the end of Dark Night of the Soul. The noire-ish title is supported by this chapter, which provides Murph and us with a European corpse in the backseat of his cab. Murph knows he will be blamed and once again subjected to the scrutiny of the Denver police.

I highly recommend the new Murph book, but I suggest you buy and read all the others first. Is that necessary to enjoy and appreciate this book?  Not at all, but you’ll be a better and a happier person if you do so.

Laughter is rare in this age of Ebola, so take it where you find it.  I wish Reilly were still alive to write about that subject. He’d extract many laughs from it. As his biggest fan, I have no doubt.

The publisher’s website for Reilly’s books is http://theasphaltwarrior.com

—David Willson

The Enlisted Men’s Club by Gary Reilly

In my review of Gary Reilly’s five Asphalt Warrior novels I lamented that his unpublished books based on his tour of duty in Vietnam still languished in his steamer trunk. I am happy to announce that the first of these novels—The Enlisted Men’s Club (Running Meter Press, 372 pp., $18.95, paper)—is now in print. I wish Gary Reilly had not chosen to stash these novels to be published until after his death, because I would have liked for him to read the positive reviews that his books are getting.

I raved about how good the five Asphalt Warrior novels were. The Enlisted Men’s Club is as good, or better. It is a darker novel for sure, but with plenty of humor. All we have been told about Reilly’s death is that it was caused by cancer. Now that I am reading his series of military novels, wonder if he died of Agent Orange-related cancer.

Reilly was drafted into the Army, and served a year in Vietnam as an MP. The Enlisted Men’s Club is filled with the dry, sardonic observations that made his first five books a delight to read. The U. S. Army during the Vietnam War was made for an observer like Gary Reilly, and his doppelganger main character, Private Palmer.

The nature of modern war gets close scrutiny in this book; Palmer is mostly in San Francisco stationed at The Presidio awaiting orders for Vietnam, what Palmer calls “these times which are moving fast but without momentum toward the war in Vietnam.”

Gary Reilly

The war hangs heavy over every event in this novel, like the damp, thick fog that is endemic to The Presidio and the entire San Francisco Bay area. Reilly’s considerable skill with narrative makes this doom-laden book always engrossing. ‘

Even though Palmer is assured countless times that “MP’s don’t die in Vietnam,” he is convinced that death will be his fate.

Palmer takes great pleasure in being an Army MP. It’s his dream job. As Reilly puts it: “He likes being told what to do like a mindless puppet, as the hippies say, and going where somebody points him, and doing what they tell him to do.”

I enjoyed that aspect of military life myself. On the other hand, “Palmer can see quite clearly that Vietnam is going to be a crock of shit.” He got that right.

This novel is free of the usual clichés that are so wearisome in novels and memoirs written by Vietnam veterans. One of my favorite scenes in the book comes near the end when Palmer is readying himself to be transported to Vietnam. He is approached by a seventeen-year-old barefoot hippy girl with stringy but clean hair. She invites him to join an antiwar rally. He informs her that he can’t as he will be in Vietnam by then.  She does not call him names or spit on him. She is sweet and saddened by this announcement.

Private Palmer drinks a lot of beer, and spends a lot of time conniving to dodge “shit details” which he hates, as did all of us who served in the Army—things like sweeping already clean floors and polishing already surgically clean toilets.

The publisher calls Reilly a “master story teller,” and that fact is even more apparent in this novel than in the previous five. I highly recommend The Enlisted Men’s Club to those who wish to enjoy a book about the last weeks before a young man ends up in Vietnam, convinced he will die there.

The book I am really looking forward to is his next one, the in-country Vietnam War novel that will provide Reilly the best material for his sardonic wit.

—David Willson

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