Friday, September 19, 2008

The Last Detail by Darryl Ponicsan

The Last Detail by Darryl Ponicsan
The Dial Press
Hardcover Ed., Copyright 1970


The transient barracks at Norfolk Naval Base are deserted at nine this morning, or almost deserted; Billy Bad-Ass, First Class Signalman, is asleep in the TV room at the far end of the barracks.

I'll never forget that opening line from Darryl Ponicsan's first novel. Set in the late 60s during dismal weather in late autumn, "The Last Detail" is a journey story. Although travel is involved, it not that type of journey. The novel is a bit forgotten, and that could be because of the fine Hal Ashby film. But good movies come from books that are usually better, and this is definitely the case here.

Billy "Bad-Ass" Buddusky is awaiting orders for a ship, when he pulls Shore Patrol duty with Richard "Mule" Mulhall. Both sailors are 32 year old "lifers" and their orders are to escort an 18 year old sailor to the Naval brig in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Larry Meadows stole $40 from a polio donation box and was sentenced eight years hard labor. Billy and Mule look at this as a cushy detail, but as they head out with young Meadows, they discover differently.

It's a novel about understanding, pity, and duty. Billy and Mule realize that Meadows' sentence is too extreme, they feel sorry for him, and set out to show the young sailor a good time before he is locked up. It's a sailors good time they take him on, the only one they know. Giving him experiences that they feel the young man will miss out on, the two "brotherly" take Meadows on an accelerated tour of taverns, rowdiness, places of ill repute, and along the way form a drunken companionship. A friendship develops between the three, but it's a bleak friendship. We know that Billy and Mule will carry out their orders to the end, it's an understanding that all of them know as they continue northward, through Washington, New York and Boston. The closer they get to Portsmouth, the more they agonize within, because they allowed the bond between them to grow too strong. As Mule said, "I hate this chickenshit detail." As time is running out, the end of their journey draws near and the inevitable awaits them.

It's a sailor's novel; salty in language, humor and antics. I spent time in transient barracks, pulled Shore Patrol duty, and met "lifers" like Billy "Bad-Ass" Buddusky -there is reality here. Compassion develops and depressed sadness is left. Billy and Mule experience feelings of sympathy and affection for Meadows, as the unlikely friendship develops between the three sailors. And amazingly, Meadows comes to understand men like Billy and Mule. Away from the sea and naval bases, they find themselves in places always outside looking in. They live in a world where ordinary men must do undesirable duties. It's painful for all of them.

"Here we are," Billy says out loud, "three pals on a picnic. Do we think about other picnics? No, we ain't even been on one before. We never ice staked, we never seen the sights, all we know is whores and bars."

"We know ships," says Mule, "and we know our rate."
"Yeah, whores and bars and ships and our rates."


Hal Ashby's 1973 film which starred Jack Nicholson, followed the novel quite well, but it wasn't complete. The film omits the last two chapters and in those we learn the fates of Billy "Bad-Ass" and Mule, after they hand Meadows over to the Marines in Portsmouth. If you enjoyed the movie but never read the novel, you will want to....

7 comments:

David Cranmer said...

Being a former MP in the army, this review hits close to home. I've somehow missed this classic film and the book. Both sound excellent.

Scott Parker said...

I really enjoy stories where the ending (i.e., turning over Meadows) is preordained. The reader is constantly wondering will they or won't they. I haven't seen the film or heard of the novel. Thanks for the tip.

James Fulford said...

What does "We never ice staked" mean? Navy slang, something that's explained earlier in the book, or a transcription error?

August West said...

James: No Navy term. Earlier in the story, Billy and Mule asked Meadows what he wanted to do and he responded that he would like to go ice skating. They took him to a rink and watched him struggle on skates and having himself a good time. I think Billy was using "We never ice staked" as a reference to never trying something different than going to bars and getting drunk, etc...

bish8 said...

Thanks for bringing this title back to mind. I've not read the book, but have now ordered it up from the library.

www.bishsbeat.blogspot.com

ANTHONY SIDES said...

Excellent novel. There's a nice line early on about how no one's ever seen Billy violent, but no one suspects he is non-violent.

ANTHONY SIDES said...

I also enjoyed Ponicsan's Andoshen, PA, a quirkier novel about a version of Shenandoah, PA.