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.
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.