Why did I love this book?
In the early 1970s, when I was a Buck Sergeant in the US Army stationed overseas in Korea, I received a small package from my cousin. He was a year older than me and in the Navy and stationed at Subic Bay in the Philippines. What was odd about the package was that he seldom mailed me anything, and certainly nothing that would be more trouble than a brief letter. I opened the package and therein lay a paperback copy of The Last Detail.
The story starts out with Petty Officer First Class William Buddusky, better known as Billy Bad-Ass, passed out drunk in the Day Room in the barracks, still in dress uniform with an almost empty bottle of cheap wine next to him. Immediately, I recognized a kindred spirit. A lifer, an enlisted man, and somebody who lived in the real world of the military as I knew it—and not in some idealized heroic Hollywood version of “our brave fighting men overseas.” When he told the Chief Master-at-arms to “go fuck himself” I was in love. Shirking my routine duties, I read the book through, devouring it in one sitting.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is reported to have said that when he first read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he was astonished that anyone could write about a man who woke up one morning as a cockroach. It opened up a whole new world and gave him permission to write the way he always wanted to write, which resulted in magic realism.
For me, Darryl Ponicsan and The Last Detail gave me permission to write about the world of enlisted soldiers and sailors and marines that I knew; with all its sordid details and tales of woeful mistreatment and never-ending lack of respect that we GIs are heir to. It allowed me to not phony up a story into some sort of epic of heroism and self-sacrifice. Rather it granted me permission to tell it straight, no chaser, as Ponicsan had done. And 15 novels and 50 short stories later, that’s what I’m still trying to do.