Saturday, November 11, 2017

Chasing Spiders With a Pen: Gary Reilly’s War

by Mark Stevens

I know jackshit about war. In particular, Vietnam.

I had a low draft number but then the draft was cancelled, right when I was thinking about Canada. Or some other escape. Bone spurs? A high school friend had died in Vietnam. It scared the hell out of me.

I’ve seen the movies and I’ve read the books:

Platoon. Saving Private Ryan. Deer Hunter. Full Metal Jacket.

Matterhorn, Tree of Smoke, Dog Soldiers, Going After Cacciato.

But, still, I can only imagine.

I watched the Ken Burns documentary and tried not to throw anything at the television; all those lies.

Goodreads has a list of 280 novels about The Vietnam War. Would that do the trick?

I doubt it. Can art really capture the mental toll of war? I’m sure it comes close, in many cases.

It’s the same with coming home from war. I have no idea what it’s like to come home, to have seen so much death and killing and to have survived. I’m sure surviving is better, right?

The statistics suggest maybe, maybe not.

My friend Gary Reilly knew. He served in Vietnam. He was an MP at an airfield called Qui Nho’n. One year “in country,” not even in combat, and I believe he carried it around with him for the rest of his life.

Gary didn’t talk much about the war when he got home, in 1971. The war was winding down, but war is war. If you’re fighting, you’re fighting. By the end of 1971 “only” 151,000 U.S. soldiers would be in Vietnam; down from a half-million at the war’s peak.

I didn’t meet Gary until 2004, 33 years after he came back from Vietnam.

A couple weeks ago, I emailed Gary’s longtime partner, Sherry, to see if her recollection was the same as mine—that Gary didn’t talk about that year. Sherry agreed. She wrote: “Gary did not like to talk much about being in Vietnam. He would have nightmares sometimes that he associated with Vietnam, but he didn't talk about that much either. Sometimes he would wake up at night, yelling and trying to get the spiders off of him. He would say in his nightmare he was in Vietnam, being attacked by bugs. That was a recurring nightmare. He did talk sometimes about how he never took advantage of an ‘RnR’ that he may have been entitled to because he said once he left Vietnam, he would never be able to return.”

Gary didn’t talk much about those spiders, but he had an outlet: writing fiction. Shortly after returning from Vietnam, Gary took classes at the University of Colorado at Denver. The teachers were impressed with his style. Encouraged, Gary sent one story called “The Biography Man” off to the prestigious Iowa Review. It was published. And re-published the next year in the fourth volume of the Pushcart Prize Anthology. That particular story had nothing to do with Vietnam, but maybe it gave him a boost of confidence to keep writing.

On second thought, I doubt he needed it.

Gary was going to write.

And write.

“The Biography Man” was the first—and only story—that Gary published in his lifetime. (It’s a beauty; I’ve never read anything like it.)

One story—that was it.

When Gary passed away in 2011, however, he left behind 25 full-length novels.

Three of the 25 novels featured a character named Private Palmer, an MP who went to Vietnam and was part of the war. The first, The Enlisted Men’s Club, takes place at The Presidio as Palmer waits for the call up, unsure if it will come. The second book, The Detachment, takes place in Vietnam. And The Discharge finds Palmer at home in Denver trying to find a foothold back in civilization. The books form a seamless trilogy of one man’s journey to war—and back.

I’ve read all three—several times. I still know jackshit about what it’s like to go to war. I don’t have nightmares about spiders.

All three novels feature the war—getting ready, living with it, and dealing with the aftermath. Palmer is jaded. He finds ways to endure, to survive military stupidity and “shit jobs,” as he calls them. Palmer has his avoidance schemes, but in all three books he finds ways to connect with others, to assert or maintain his humanity.

As I write this, there are 1.3 million men and women in active duty in the U.S. armed forces. There are 10,000 stationed in Afghanistan, a war that has been going on since long before I met Gary Reilly for the first time. There are thousands in Bahrain and Kuwait and tens of thousands in South Korea and Japan, which could be a hot spot any moment, and of course now we know they’re in Niger and all over Africa, too.

We ask the soldiers to bear that weight but we really have no idea what toll that takes, thinking daily “what if?” Do they know what they’re getting into? Do they? They’re all okay with dying for the cause, for the country?

Some soldiers look down the barrels of their weapons. They are there to kill. Others are in what’s called “the rear.” During Vietnam, if you served in the rear, you were a REMF.

I didn’t know that acronym, or what it stood for, before a review of The Detachment was published by a book reviewer for the Vietnam Veterans of America: “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.”

REMF: Rear-echelon motherfuckers. Support troops.

Gary Reilly didn’t see action. He was pure REMF.

Reilly didn’t see action and, of course, neither did his alter-ego, Palmer. (Even from his close-up vantage point for war, Reilly saw no need to take his fiction beyond what he had seen with his own two eyes; Palmer’s world was no more expansive than Reilly’s own.) Palmer didn’t see direct combat, but he saw the consequences of war all around him. The war came to him.

And took a toll.

We all know about that toll—the mental health, the injuries, the empty holes in families, the lost potential. I won’t go into detail here, only urge—if you’re curious—to read Gary Reilly’s view of Vietnam.

I’m not the only enthusiast of Gary’s work. As mentioned, the book reviewer for The Vietnam Veterans of America wrote a rave. Booklist praised Gary’s work as well. Here’s a note from a review of The Detachment: “Palmer’s mission is so banal most writers would not describe it, but Reilly describes it, and the result is that rarest thing in fiction, originality. His novel is a harsh and startling corrective to those foggy old vets who elevate their undistinguished service into something glorious.”

Ron Carlson raved (“Catch 23 or 24”) as did Stewart O’Nan (“classic.”) Both amazing writers if you don’t know them. O’Nan edited The Vietnam Reader.

Ernest Hemingway said to “write one true sentence” to get rolling. If you wrote one true sentence, you could take it from there. Hemingway was opposed to ornaments in writing.

Reilly left behind tens of thousands of true sentences. Here’s one paragraph from The Detachment:
The building shivers as a soft boom rolls across Qui Nhon, across the evac hospital, across the airfield, and the 109th, and beyond. Palmer sets the paperback down and sits absolutely motionless, waiting for another explosion. The VC must be tossing mortars again. He suddenly wants sky over his head, wants to be able to see everything around him, feels trapped inside this box of a room and wants to get out, to be able to see if there’s somebody he has to shoot at. He’s glad he’s good with the .45. Barely made sharpshooter with the M-14, but then he might be better with the M-16, a crazy spring in its butt to absorb the kick, probably thought up by the genius who designed the briefcase handle. Palmer scoots his chair back and stands up, casually turns and begins strolling down the aisle between the beds where men are sleeping. Nobody but himself seems to have noticed the boom. Maybe it takes more than the gentle shiver of a building to alarm infantrymen. Probably more attuned to real danger than Palmer ever will be.
That was Gary’s writing about war—chasing away the spiders with the work of his pen, one true sentence at a time.

Note: To date, in addition to Gary’s Vietnam novels, Running Meter Press has also published eight novels in The Asphalt Warrior series, comic adventures about a Denver cab driver named Murph. Three of the eight books were finalists for the Colorado Book Award and a reviewer for National Public Radio declared them “huge fun.” More about all of Gary’s work:

Raised outside Boston, Mark Stevens is the son of two librarians. By law, he was required to grow up loving books. And writing. He was the 2016 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year. He writes the Allison Coil Mystery Series—Antler Dust, Buried by the Roan, Trapline and Lake of Fire. The last three books were all finalists for the Colorado Book Award. Trapline won (2015). Stevens is president of the Rocky Mountain chapter for Mystery Writers of America and serves on the national board. He also hosts a regular podcast for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Kirkus Reviews called Lake of Fire “irresistible” and Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire novels, said, “Mark Stevens writes like wildfire.”


  1. Having read almost all of Reilly's published work, I echo everything Mark has said here. Gary Reilly was a writer's writer. And it astonishes me that he wrote for himself (demonstrably moreso than any other writer I have ever read or heard of). I regard it as some sort or miracle that Running Meter Press has, after Reilly's death, brought out so much of his priceless output, his firehose of one true sentence after another, one true book after another. I believe that we have not yet even approached the end of the Gary Reilly story.

  2. Fantastic blog with a fantastic artcle

  3. I just now read this article with a lump in my throat and awe in my mind (for Gary Reilly, for Mark Stevens, for Running Meter Press) having no recollection of having read it and commented on it four years ago! Gary Reilly lives!