By Mark Stevens
Regrets? I’ve had a few.
One bothers me more than most.
I knew it at the time, when I first read Gary Reilly’s stuff.
We’d meet in coffee shops, frequently the Europa Café on South Pennsylvania Street in Denver. Hip joint. Cool vibe.
Gary would pluck a stack of things from his satchel—offbeat fiction he’d found in the used bookstores along Broadway. He’d pull out cheap paperbacks, maybe a manuscript of mine that he had edited for the fifth or sixth time. He’d tell me the story of some B-movie he’d stayed up to watch. The guy loved movies.
And, over the years, he’d hand me one of the novels he had written.
About 25 of them.
This was years ago, when he was healthy and hearty and could talk for hours. Two rounds of large iced lattes, no problem.
I’d take the novels home—one at a time.
I was astounded at the sheer range of voices the guy produced—the comic adventures of his erstwhile cab driver Murph (the star of 11 novels), two dark psychological thrillers, some sci-fi, some fantasy, some straight-up, multi-generational all-American fiction and two of the best Vietnam-era novels I’ve ever read.
During our years of coffees, I went from “unpublished” status to “published.” Yes, a small indie publisher but I got an advance; it was a regular deal. Nobody could have been happier for me than Gary Reilly.
Here’s where the regret comes in.
I just re-read the first of the Vietnam-era books again: The Enlisted Men’s Club.
Poetry on every poetry. We’re in the Presidio, in San Francisco, and Private Palmer is waiting orders to ship out to Vietnam. All he wants to do is drink beer and avoid “shit details.” Nearly 100,000 words of raw honesty. Gary drew on his own experiences (he served as an MP in Qui Nhon) and The Enlisted Men’s Club takes you smack back to the mood and the feeling of that messy political era.
Here are the opening two paragraphs (following a brief prologue):
The ground is damp where Private Palmer is standing, sandy, with some sort of small-leafed green vine which wraps itself around everything planted in the earth—the white wooden legs of the NCOIC tower, a picket line of telephone poles, even the rows of smooth white rocks as large as footballs which border the sides of the dirt drive leading into the rifle range.
The sky is overcast and the wind is blowing hard, making Palmer’s fingertips ache each time he pinches a brass-jacketed round of ammunition and tries to stuff it into a spring-loaded magazine. His gloves are in the pockets of his field-jacket because this isn’t the kind of work you can do wearing gloves, you have to do it bare handed. Colorado raised, he’s used to the stale dry mile-high bite of lifeless Rocky winters, not these damp, heat-sapping, muggy mists blown inland from the coastal waters at dawn. San Francisco Bay is hidden by barren brown hills which border the rifle range, but he can still smell the odor of beached fish in the air.
I read The Enlisted Men’s Club and knew Simon & Schuster would need only tweak four or five typos to turn it into a book today. Flawless, perfectly paced and beautifully structured. The ending is a piece of work—a fine insight into humanity that gives a ray of hope to what is otherwise a fairly bleak tale.
And, now that Gary is gone (he died nearly three years ago), I was near tears as I read The Enlisted Men’s Club.
I’m angry that I didn’t stand him up, march him out of the coffee shop, drive him to a place where I could really give him a piece of my mind—that he needed to do more to get his damn books published.
I was frustrated at the time that Gary wouldn’t send out more queries.
But I didn’t really do anything about it.
I was frustrated at the time that Gary wouldn’t come to RMFW events, to network and find a path to publication.
But I didn’t really do anything about it.
When I’d ask him if he wanted a list of agents to contact, he said would think about it. He’d give me a little shrug of the shoulders. Self-promotion and marketing weren’t part of his DNA.
But I didn’t insist.
I should have made an issue out of it.
Gary would go back home—and write. We’d meet again in six weeks or so and he would have polished up another manuscript.
The guy was born to write and tell stories. He wrote (obviously) for the sheer joy of it. He was fascinated about the process. He loved words like nobody I have ever met.
Twenty-five novels and most (in my mind) could go straight to print.
Five Murph (The Asphalt Warrior) novels have been published so far and the response has been terrific. One Colorado Book Award finalist, two number one Denver Post best-sellers, and reviews coming in from all over the country—and around the world. Murph has followers on Facebook and Twitter.
Because Gary was a vet, the Vietnam Veterans of America website just reviewed all five of Gary’s books—and raved.
The VVA is waiting on his Vietnam novels, of course. If all goes well, The Enlisted Men’s Club will be out late this spring or early summer. Readers will not be disappointed. I guarantee it.
When readers start to see Gary Reilly’s range and his storytelling ability, I have a feeling my case of regret will only get worse.
What’s the lesson for the rest of us? Sure, write up a storm. Sit in that coffee shop. But get out there and network—knock on every door, query everyone in sight, never give up.
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan. Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014. Mark is also a partner in Running Meter Press, the company publishing Gary’s works. All proceeds from the company are going to Gary’s longtime girlfriend.