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The Enlisted Men's Club

by Gary Reilly

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The Enlisted Men's Club is the first of a trilogy of stories about military life by the late Gary Reilly, based on his experiences in Vietnam. Private Palmer is stationed at San Francisco's army base at The Presidio, awaiting orders. He's trying to find his place in the ranks. And trying to avoid work. While he's been trained as a Military Policeman, he has no idea what's next. Palmer keeps a low profile by day and seeks escape in the bars at night. The trick to survival, he decides, is not to care about anything during his time in the Army. To his surprise, that's the most difficult challenge of all.… (more)
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I loved this book. Gary Reilly's novel, THE ENLISTED MEN'S CLUB, succeeds on so many levels. It's a dead on accurate portrayal of army life in the late sixties; of the anti-war climate of protest, the 'flower child' era, and the summer(s) of love, particularly in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco; and it's also a funny, moving and poignant coming of age story.

Reilly's 20-21 year-old protagonist, Private Palmer, starts out the story as something of a kind of blank slate, who wants only to keep a low profile (although he also wants very much to be promoted) and get quietly obliterated on bowling alley beer busts as often as possible. But throughout the story the reader gets further insights into his background, born into a large Catholic family (numbers a bit vague, but there are at least two brother and two sisters), after high school Palmer drifted between dead-end jobs, waiting to be drafted. Trained as a military policeman (MP), he is initially assigned to the Presidio of San Francisco (perhaps one of most 'plum' assignments in the Army), while he awaits further orders to Vietnam, an unpopular war which lurks just offstage throughout the story. Little by little, almost against his will, Palmer is drawn into the lives of his fellow MPs of Company D and even makes a few friends. Things happen, serious things which Palmer cannot ignore, things which force him to grow up and get involved.

The thing is, at first I wasn't sure if I even liked Palmer - the loner who wants nothing more than to get wasted on beer. What I liked was the way Reilly depicted the reality of enlisted life in the 60s. Reilly had it down. Here's an early example, describing the mad scramble in the barracks after duty hours -

"Everyone is getting out of the company area as fast as he can because nobody wants to get nabbed for sh** details which might spring up without warning, which is the nature of sh** details."

Oh yes, I remember that rush to evacuate the company area during my own early enlisted years in the sixties. And then there was the drinking. Palmer tries several times in the course of the narrative to quit both drinking and smoking, but never quite succeeds, at least not for long, because they are -

"... the two things that always go hand-in-hand or else lead to one another. The problem with sobriety is that it makes you feel so good that you feel like going out and getting blasted."

Stuff like this made me chuckle. Too true, and this is absolutely genuine GI thinking when you're only 19 or 20, believe me. I've been there done that - fifty years ago. These kinds of details kept me turning the pages while I tried to decide if I liked this Palmer guy. And then there are the other details of time and place, like the liquor store on Stanyan Street (the home stomping grounds of Rod McKuen, the uncrowned poet laureate of the sixties), the numerous references to the music - "Crimson and Clover," Moby Grape, the Electric Prunes, and the summer of love, the Smothers Brothers, Laugh-In, and the rumors that Paul McCartney was dead. All this attention to detail served to keep me going until a pivotal event in the story that began to turn Palmer around. He is assigned to funeral escort duty, accompanying the body of a soldier from his company back home for burial.

The dead man, Thorpe, misunderstood and avoided, had been even more of a loner than Palmer, who feels confusion and remorse over how he had regarded and treated the man. Carrying a tri-folded flag onto the plane with which to drape the casket upon arrival in Wichita, Palmer becomes super-sensitive to the importance of his task, and wants so badly to do things right that he won't drink any alcohol, afraid of getting drunk and screwing things up -

"His concern is mostly for the flag, which is why he decides not to smoke, afraid of getting ashes on it, or burning a hole in the fabric. When turbulence jostles the plane, he worries about spilling his soft drink on the flag, and drinks the pop quickly."

From this point on, Palmer became a much more sympathetic character and began to think more about other people and less about himself. He becomes involved in helping a girl he is half in love with who is in an abusive relationship with Palmer's best friend, Courtney. And he selflessly finagles a way to have his older brother's orders to Vietnam rescinded, because of an AR which disallows two siblings serving in a combat zone.

Gary Reilly was obviously a guy who read. Because Palmer's story shows many influences. There's a bit of Holden Caulfield in this young man who tries to salvage a sense of self and individuality while part of a system that discourages this, that tries to tear you down and make you an unquestioning cog in the machine of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower had warned America about. (Indeed the Oakland Army Terminal, the shipping point for troops bound for Vietnam is described as being "industrial" looking, "civilian and factory-like.")

There is something of CATCH-22 here too, particularly in a passage where Palmer, in trying to change his brother's orders "was only beginning to understand: if you want to get anything accomplished in the army, talk to a Spec Four." I mean shades of PFC Wintergreen. And there was also Palmer's executive officer, Lt Norbert, comically reminiscent of Heller's Lt Scheisskopf.

And the final lines of THE ENLISTED MEN'S CLUB, which find Palmer sprinting desperately away into the darkness, again bring to mind Heller, as well as Updike's RABBIT, RUN, and a few more recent works of military fiction, books like David Abrams' FOBBIT and Kevin Powers' YELLOW BIRDS.

Tragically, Gary Reilly died in 2011. But he left behind more than two dozen completed and unpublished novels. THE ENLISTED MEN'S CLUB is book one of a Vietnam era trilogy. You can bet I'll be first in line for book two.

I could say more, but I guess I'll just repeat what I said at the start of this. I loved this book. Very highly recommended. ( )
  TimBazzett | Jan 2, 2015 |
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The Enlisted Men's Club is the first of a trilogy of stories about military life by the late Gary Reilly, based on his experiences in Vietnam. Private Palmer is stationed at San Francisco's army base at The Presidio, awaiting orders. He's trying to find his place in the ranks. And trying to avoid work. While he's been trained as a Military Policeman, he has no idea what's next. Palmer keeps a low profile by day and seeks escape in the bars at night. The trick to survival, he decides, is not to care about anything during his time in the Army. To his surprise, that's the most difficult challenge of all.

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