Griffin - Retreat Hell

April 16, 2004

William E Butterworth is a hack. He freely admits it.

He is also a hack who has stumbled onto a gold mine of high quality hack fiction material. The guy has been cranking out a couple of books a year for thirty years under one name or another. He wrote a set of novels - basically a multivolume version of one long complicated story - about a batch of Army officers who meet during the 1950s and then serve in Vietnam. Along the way he writes about the U.S. Army's attempt to field a rocket-armed helicopter in the 1950s and 1960s, a project that he worked on during his own service time.

The books worked, and he wrote more.

The gold mine is in the response that he got from the retired military community - he had always stayed in touch with them and he lives Southern Alabama in retired US military heartland. What happened was that folks at the Armor Association, or his neighbors, or folks who read his novels and liked them, all began to tell him stories. He took those stories, wrapped them around his standard plot about rich dilettantes who get drunk, misbehave, and have sex with beautiful women while serving their nation, often heroically. It is a good formula, and only folks who read too many of them (like me) and remember what they read (like me) will be bothered by the repetition of the same stock encounters and stock plot sequences.

There is something to be said for being a good hack.

Retreat Hell is the latest in his saga of the US Marine Corps. It has the usual suspects: the dangerous intelligence man, the drunken lightweight flyboy who is his best friend, the career officer who is dismayed by the caravan of drunks and fools, and the politically connected troubleshooter who reports to the President. This advances the saga of the Korean War from the Inchon landing to the Chinese intervention. It was gripping enough that I finished it, long enough that it took a couple of days, and generic enough that I had little trouble putting it down after meals, can reading, or other short study breaks with a book.

The interesting part is that much of the book drew on a set of conversations with retired General Almond of the USMC, who was a crucial commander during that advance and who appears as a character in the novel. Butterworth writes his friends into his novels, or perhaps he writes novels around his friends, and in the process he gets a compelling rhythm underneath the hack plot and sometimes clunky exposition.

They are good books; I do hope he keeps writing them.

Posted by Red Ted at April 16, 2004 09:28 PM
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