We've written before about the strange career of Denver cabbie and secret author Gary Reilly, who wrote more than two dozen novels over decades but never tried to publish any of them before his death from cancer in 2011, at the age of 61. That long silence is now being swept away by his friends, novelist Mark Stevens and cartoonist Mike Keefe, who launched Running Meter Press with the express purpose of issuing a new Reilly book every few months -- including the latest, a surprisingly somber portrait of a soldier waiting to ship out for Vietnam, The Enlisted Men's Club.
The five previous Reilly works that Running Meter has put out are all part of a series of mildly comic novels involving a decidedly unambitious, somewhat antisocial cabbie named Murph, who keeps getting reluctantly involved in the lives and problems of his fares -- while giving us a glimpse or two of late-twentieth-century culture clashes in the Mile High City. This new arrival is something quite different, the first of three novels based on Reilly's experiences as a military policeman during the Vietnam War.
There's no actual combat in this first phase of the trilogy, which is set entirely in San Francisco around 1970. (The exact time frame isn't clear, but it's clearly post-Tet and post-Manson.) Our protagonist, Private Palmer, is a draftee marking time and trying to avoid the most boring or grueling assignments (or "shit details," as he calls them) around the base. There are some light moments, including some business about speeded-up home movies and a riff on how the military's "lifers" try to cow the new recruits with endless tales of the accidental deaths of screw-ups. But this is a more richly textured and serious book than the Murph series, a matter-of-fact study of men waiting for war -- and burying their anxiety by immersing themselves in dissipation and the tedium and absurdity of military routine.
And there are exquisitely written passages unlike anything in the Murph books, such as this scene from a training exercise:
Palmer touches his shirt pocket for a cigarette, then drops his hand. The smoking lamp isn't lit. Do real grunts smoke on patrol? The point-man has an incomprehensible look of panic on his face. Lt. Norbert turns him around by the shoulders and shoves him back toward his position. Can patrols in Vietnam be as half-assed as this? Palmer knows he could very well end up in the Infantry and that he is not guaranteed to remain an MP once he arrives in a combat zone, though maybe that's just Army Apocrypha. He will never be able to separate his illusions from his ignorance. When he was inducted he expected everyone to end up with nicknames, like Bookworm, Lefty, or Ace. His nickname would be Colorado, as in, "Colorado bought the farm last night, Ace." Everyone would look like Bart Maverick, Brett's less-interesting brother. When they got into arguments, they would raise their chins and say things like, "Back off, buddy boy."
It's not Tim O'Brien. Or Gustav Hasford or Michael Herr. It's closer to James Jones in its attention to the boredom and petty squabbles of base life. But it promises more intriguing exploits in the next installment, as Palmer heads into the shit in southeast Asia rather than the shit details.
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Stevens and Keefe will present the book and some of its back story at two p.m. on Saturday at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax. Fall in -- and for more information, call 303-322-7727.