Redeployment by Phil Klay

Phil Klay is a former Marine who served in Iraq. He says the dozen stories in his new best-selling, critically acclaimed book, Redeployment (Penguin, 304 pp., $26.95), are partly autobiographical.

These are not Johnny-one-note stories, all using the same point-of-view, or showing us the same protagonist. These are stories about war told from many angles and with many different voices. All are convincing, interesting, and spell-binding. Klay is a master storyteller.

This is not an all-male war book. There are well-imagined female characters in the book, including a soldier who spent the war filling potholes until she got blown up and disfigured.

These stories make the innocent reader aware of the horrors of all wars—including the Vietnam War. In one story a female veteran who is severely injured  in Iraq, says, “My dad was in Vietnam.”  And her granddad was in Korea. She thought of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket when she went into the military. Her dad had been a REMF. But she was out in the shit.

Her friend comments about the films: “I’ll bet that more Marines have joined the Corps because of Full Metal Jacket than because of any fucking recruitment commercial.” He goes on to say that there is no such thing as an antiwar film. I agree. They all make war seem like an adventure.

We get the stories of a Lance Corporal grunt, a Mortuary Affairs Marine, a chaplain, and a young foreign service officer assigned to bring baseball to Iraqi street kids. Another story deals with veterans in a bar who take part in an interview for a school project, one of them so badly burned that he looks like a horror show villain.

In the story “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” there is a Fobbit, or REMF, who says:  “I went for an MOS that wouldn’t put me in harm’s way. My Iraq War was a stack of papers.”

Phil Klay

The Vietnam War continues to pop up. One of the best stories, in fact, is entitled “In Vietnam They Had Whores.”

The narrator tells us: “My dad only told me about Vietnam when I was going over to Iraq.”  The story “Psychological Operations” contains one of the funniest jokes about Vietnam veterans I have encountered, and I thought I had heard them all.

It starts with “How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?” But I won’t ruin it by telling you the punch line. It is a good one, and true.

There is humor in the book, and I often laughed aloud. But it is dark humor. One example: the plague of herpes that infests a platoon where there are no whores available. Finally it is tracked to the serial use of an infected and unclean “pocket pussy.” Funny stuff, but very dark.

Redeployment has been compared by reviewers to Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried. That’s fair enough as a quality comparison, but the book is more like John A. Miller’s Jackson Street or John Mort’s Don’t Mean Nothin or even Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

The great strength of the book—aside from the fine writing and the dark humor—is the honesty and how the stories are presented from a kaleidoscope of experiences. Klay generously thanks a long list of folks who helped him, but he must get the final credit for this powerful book of people at war who then try to survive after their war.

No book better makes us aware of the butcher’s bill of modern war.

—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

The Return by Michael Gruber

Michael Gruber has a PhD in marine sciences, lives in Seattle, and has a long list of publications, both novels and nonfiction. He served as a medic in the U.S. Army in 1968-69

I spotted no clinkers in The Return (Holt, 384 pp., $28), Gruber’s latest, well-researched novel. The hero is diagnosed with a fatal disease on page one and soon tells us: “The world seemed sharper than it had when he entered the office a few hours ago, as if someone had wiped clear his smudged glasses…the last time he has felt this preternatural clarity was years ago, when he was a soldier in Vietnam, in the night forests along the Laotian Border. This, too, was strange: Marder almost never recollected that war.”

This knocked my brain for a loop. Reading thrillers often requires a reader to willingly suspend disbelief, and I have become good at that. But this required a lot of effort on my part. For one thing, I think of my time in Vietnam every day. For another, when I was given a fatal diagnosis of Agent Orange-caused bone cancer by my doctor, no clarity was apparent to me at all. On the other hand, I am a different sort of person than Marden, which became clearer as the novel progressed.

Michael Gruber

The Vietnam War pops up again and again in this thriller, much of which takes place in Mexico. Gruber’s main themes are money, firepower, family and friends (one of whom is an old Army buddy with an impressive skillset where warfare is concerned), and drugs. The plot is involved and beyond belief (or summary), but there is so much forward movement that that doesn’t matter.

The reader knows from page one that Marder is a dead man walking. Gruber nevertheless makes us highly interested in what he’ll choose to do as his life plays out. Marder chooses to do plenty, mainly settling old enmities and scores. In doing so, he stirs up as fine and furious a shit storm of bad guys as has ever inhabited the pages of a thriller.

Once again the Manichean dichotomy of Good vs. Evil plays out. As the plot turns and twists in the scorching Mexican wind, I’m glad that superbly gifted story tellers such as Gruber still ply their craft.

Do yourself a favor if you love a great thriller buy this one and read it. Do not delay. You won’t be sorry.

The author’s website: www.michaelgruber.com

—David Willson

Loved Honor More by Sharon Wildwind

Sharon Wildwind’s Loved Honor More (Five Star, 394 pp., $25.95) is the latest in a series of her Elizabeth Pepperhawk/Avivah Rosen mysteries. The author, who spent a year in Vietnam as an officer in the U. S. Army Nurse Corps, says she “can still remember exactly where she was the day that Saigon fell.” That’s not unusual for a Vietnam veteran. 

The title offers no clues that this is a Vietnam War-related mystery, but the colorful cover features dog tags, a blue and red edged airmail envelope, and a photograph of a helicopter against an orange sky. Those were enough clues for this student of paperback book covers to indicate that there is a story inside that deals with the Vietnam War.

Loved Honor More is a historical mystery. It takes place during the final weeks preceding the Fall of Saigon. The author tells us this is the final book in this series.

The heading of Chapter One informs us that it is “Sunday, 4 May 1975, 2200 hours, the Homestead, Madison County, North Carolina.” The first sentence begins: “Ex-Army nurse Elizabeth Pepperhawk burrowed deeper under her quilt.” The scene is set and the main character has been presented.

The author in her Army days

Soon the book is off and running at full speed. I have not read the previous books in this series, which puts me at a disadvantage. But I found the book immediately engrossing even though the characters were new to me, which is a tribute to the skill of the author.

In the first two chapters, ex-nurse Elizabeth Pepperhawk (Pepper) is informed of the murder by knife of her long-time lover, Colonel Darby Baxter, in a hallway in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as that city is about to fall to the communists.  Also, Pepperhawk is blackmailed by her alleged friend, a Miss Fillmore, for $3 million for possession of Colonel Baxter’s  blue-grey eyed, infant daughter.

This reader was sucked in. Who killed Colonel Baxter and why? Who is the mother of the infant daughter and where is she?

Soon Miss Fillmore is found dead in Pepperhawk’s clinic. Pepper and her two friends, Avivah Rosen and Benny Kirkpatrick, decide that Colonel Baxter lied about the baby. He “loved honor more,” as the title says. But then, who are the baby’s parents?

Pepper and her two friends begin to try to solve the mystery closest to them: Who murdered Miss Fillmore?  Soon the Vietnam War invades Pepper’s homestead in North Carolina in the form of Vietnamese refugees whose presence upsets the local community of veterans.

I’ll tell no more of this story to avoid acting as a spoiler. I will say that I enjoyed the book, and will order the other books in the series that I somehow missed. I recommend that fans of Vietnam War-related mysteries make a point to get acquainted with this series featuring the intrepid and persistent Elizabeth Pepperhawk.

The author’s website is www.wildwindauthor.com

—David Willson

American Horse by William Panzarella

In American Horse (366 pp., 24.95) author William Panzarella use the life story of a fictional character, Frank Keller, to tell the story of America from the Great Depression through World War II in Europe, the Cold War, and the Korean War, after which Frank’s son, Thomas, goes off to fight and die with the 1st Cav in the Vietnam War. Frank descends into the hell of alcoholism, loses his chain of hardware stores, his wife and daughter, his self-respect, and ends up serving time in jail. The novel details his long climb back from these depths to redemption of a sort.

Lots of bad things are said in this book about hippies, anti-war protestors, and recreational drug users. Much alcohol is consumed by World War II vets.

The author also alleges that the U. S. chose to leave behind many POWs in Vietnam when we withdrew, leaving the South Vietnamese to do their best without American troops and money. The author also alleges that it was commonplace for returning soldiers to be reviled and spat upon by war protestors and hippies. It’s that kind of a book.

The novel is handsomely designed, but poorly edited and proofread, so some of it is rough-going for a sensitive reader. A further hindrance to this reader was the author’s use of words that often stopped me in my tracks, as I had to look them up or scratch my head to figure out why they were there.  One example of this was the word “pleonasm.”  I learned something when I looked it up, but nothing I felt I needed to know.

The author’s website is http://www.williampanzarella.com

—David Willson