The Discharge is the third novel in Gary Reilly’s trilogy chronicling the life and times of Private Palmer as he returns from the U.S. Army to civilian life after a tour of duty in Vietnam. It is a largely autobiographical series based on his own two years of service, 1969-1971, which included a year in Southeast Asia.
In the first book, The Enlisted Men’s Club, Palmer is stationed as an MP trainee at the Presidio in San Francisco, awaiting deployment orders. Palmer is wracked with doubt and anxiety. A tortured relationship with a young lady off base and cheap beer at the EM club offer escape and temporary relief.
The Detachment is the second in the series. This novel covers Palmer’s twelve months in Vietnam as a Military Policeman. In the beginning, he endures through drink and drugs and prostitutes but comes to a turning point when he faces his challenges fully sober.
Now, in The Discharge, Palmer is back in the United States. But he’s adrift. Palmer tries to reconnect with a changed world. From San Francisco to Hollywood to Denver and, finally, behind the wheel of a taxi, Palmer seeks to find his place.
Gary Reilly was a natural and prolific writer. But he lacked the self-promotion gene. His efforts to publish his work were sporadic and perfunctory, at best. When he died in 2011, he left behind upwards of 25 unpublished novels, the Vietnam trilogy being among the first he had written.
Running Meter Press, founded by two of his close friends, has made a mission of bringing Gary’s work to print. So far, besides this trilogy, RMP has published eight of ten novels in his Asphalt Warrior series. These are the comic tales of a Denver cab driver named Murph, a bohemian philosopher, and aficionado of “Gilligan’s Island” whose primary mantra is: “Never get involved in lives of my passengers.” But, of course, he does exactly that.
Three of the titles in The Asphalt Warrior series were finalists for the Colorado Book Award. Two years in a row, Gary’s novels were featured as the best fiction of the year on NPR’s Saturday Morning Edition with Scott Simon. And Gary’s second Vietnam novel, The Detachment, drew high praise from such fine writers as Ron Carlson, Stewart O’Nan, and John Mort. A book reviewer for Vietnam Veterans of America, David Willson, raved about it, too.
There is a fascinating overlap in the serious story of Private Palmer’s return to Denver and the quixotic meanderings of Murph. It is the taxicab. One picks up where the other leaves off. Readers familiar with The Asphalt Warrior series will find a satisfying transition in the final chapters of The Discharge.
And they will better know Gary Reilly the writer and Gary Reilly the man.
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We all know war is hell.
We utter those words and we know it’s true. We’ve seen the news footage, watched the movies, read the books. We see the suicide rates. How could it be anything else?
General William Tecumseh Sherman coined the phrase “war is hell.” He had a lot more to say about war and its justifications when he wrote those words in explaining why the city of Atlanta must be evacuated and burned in order, of course, to end the fighting.
“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will,” said Sherman. “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it, and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.”
And yet, of course, war is everywhere. Wikipedia maintains a list of current armed conflicts. Or you can review at your leisure the list of wars back through the millennia and consider them in order over time.
And war-related fiction, of course, is part of our literary diet. Vonnegut. Hemingway. Heller. O’Brien. Caputo. Salter. Mailer. Greene. The late Denis Johnson and Karl Marlantis, too.
As inspiration for fiction, war has everything a writer might need.
I’ve read plenty of it, but I’ve never read anything quite like the late Gary Reilly’s three novels about the Vietnam War, a trilogy that is complete with the release this month of The Discharge.
Reilly offers a gritty portrait of one man’s experience of waiting for war, surviving the war, and finding his way home.
Gary Reilly went to war. During the Vietnam conflict, he was a military policeman at Qui Nhon Army Airfield. When he came home and started writing fiction, he developed the Private Palmer character and started writing. (His three novels about Private Palmer were just three of the 25 novels or so he left behind when he passed away in 2011; none of the books had been published.)
In the first volume of the trilogy, The Enlisted Men’s Club, Private Palmer is waiting to find out if he’ll be shipped off to fight—or not. He worries about what’s ahead, hopes to avoid the call-up, and then gets handed a surprising mission that changes his mood, shifts his attitude.
In the second installment, The Detachment, Private Palmer’s assignment is rear-echelon stuff. He serves at a military base, not on the front lines. But the war takes its emotional toll nonetheless. The war pushes Private Palmer right to the edge of self-destruction before he peers over the edge, tip-toes back, and changes his approach to what survival means.
And in The Discharge, Palmer is back home and deciding what he thinks about the world and how it’s put together and whether he has a role in it. Palmer’s mood is, at first, downbeat and dour. In the second part, he follows a faint invitation to write comedy for a genuine Hollywood star (something that also happened to Reilly). And in the third part, Palmer takes up driving a cab, still looking for his place in the world.
Joseph Heller was a bombardier during World Wari II, as was his central character Captain John Yossarian. I’m not the only one making the Catch 22 comparison. Ron Carlson (Return to Oak Pine, Five Skies, many notable short stories) called The Detachment “Catch 23 or 24.” Yossarian and his squad pals spend their time trying to avoid combat missions. Private Palmer had the same mentality. He works hard to avoid meaningless chores and staying well-buzzed by beer or wine or something stronger. Comparisons with Catch 22 are apt because of the general jaded point of view and the way both stories poke hard at military authority and skewer all those rules and all that bureaucracy.
Reading war-related fiction will never explain why war is part of our millennia-long worldwide state of being. But it will give us a window into the human experience of war and it is, in fact, hellish. So is the return home.
In his book on Spanish bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “The individual, the great artist when he comes, uses everything that has been discovered or known about his art up to that point, being able to accept or reject in a time so short it seems that the knowledge was born with him, rather than that he takes instantly what it takes the ordinary man a lifetime to know, and then the great artist goes beyond what has been done or known and makes something of his own.”
Yes, you may have to read that quote a few times to get it. But if you read The Discharge or the entire Private Palmer Trilogy, you’ll know. Gary Reilly went to war. He came home and turned the whole harrowing experience into art.
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