The Last Detail: A Novel

The Last Detail: A Novel

by Darryl Ponicsán

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The acclaimed novel that was the basis for the classic movie starring Jack Nicholson.
Unlike other branches of the armed services, the navy draws it police force from the ranks, as temporary duty called Shore Patrol. In this funny, bawdy, moving novel set during the height of the Vietnam War, two career sailors in transit in Norfolk, Virginia—Billy “Bad-Ass” Buddusky and Mule Mulhall—are assigned to escort eighteen-year-old Larry Meadows from Norfolk to the brig in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he is to serve an eight-year sentence for petty theft. It’s good duty, until the two old salts realize the injustice of the sentence and are oddly affected by the naive innocence of their young prisoner. In the five days allotted for the detail, they decide to show Meadows something of the life he doesn’t yet know, to help him survive the long ordeal ahead and to purge their own shame. What follows is an unlikely road trip by bus and train up the Eastern seaboard and an indelible journey of initiation and discovery, filled with beer-soaked wisdom, big city lights, revelry, brawls, debauchery, love, and surprising moments of tenderness.
“Salty, bawdy, hilarious, and very touching.” —Variety
“Honest, heart-wrenching.” —The New York Times
“The writing is superb, the pace headlong, the irony tempered with curious gentleness.” —Cosmopolitan
“A lean, funny, bitter book.” —The Boston Globe

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510727779
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 168,762
File size: 797 KB

About the Author

Darryl Ponicsán is the author of thirteen novels and an award-winning screenwriter for both film and television. Born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, he taught high school after attending Muhlenberg College and earning an MA at Cornell University. He served in the US Navy from 1962 to 1965, then did social work in the Watts area of Los Angeles and taught high school before the success of his debut novel, The Last Detail, allowed him to become a full-time writer. His latest novel is Last Flag Flying, the sequel to the first. He resides in Palm Springs and Sonoma, California.
Darryl Ponicsán is the author of thirteen novels and an award-winning screenwriter for both film and television. Born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, he taught high school after attending Muhlenberg College and earning an MA at Cornell University. He served in the US Navy from 1962 to 1965, then did social work in the Watts area of Los Angeles and taught high school before the success of his debut novel, The Last Detail, allowed him to become a full-time writer. His latest novel is Last Flag Flying, the sequel to the first. He resides in Palm Springs and Sonoma, California.

Read an Excerpt


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. On the centerline is a row of lockers, half-lockers really, one atop the other. Each is secured by a lock, a combination lock for those who can't keep keys, a regular lock for those who can't remember combinations or who tend to come in drunk after taps. On each side of the lockers is a row of double metal bunks. All are neatly made, not with dressed blanket edges and not tight enough for bouncing the legendary quarter, but this is not boot camp. Some of the bunks are unused and the mattresses are rolled to one end, stained with urine, semen, sweat, spit, and Wildroot, and flattened by a generation of anonymous sailors. The springs underneath are flat strips of metal that have long since reached their tolerance and have never sprung back from it. Many sailors have met the morning unable to straighten their bodies and hardly able to draw breath because of them.

Just inside the door, a seaman apprentice rubs his hands together and does a quick little dance to circulate the blood. It was cold outside, but here in the transient barracks the heat is enough to nudge you. He opens his peacoat and walks across the newly buffed deck in a cocky swagger he uses when there's no one around who outranks him.

He, like the first class signalman in the TV room, is a transient, temporarily working as the master-at-arms' messenger. He is well-off in his cushy job where he can drink coffee and smoke cigarettes as much as he pleases. There is no explanation for why he has his job and why the messcook in the galley has his. Perhaps the third class yeoman who checked him into the base liked the ring of his name.

He knows where to find Billy, as does the MAA who sent him. Billy has that which inspires tolerance: time in and rate. What's more, he reads a lot of books, sometimes even reading the same one more than once.

Across the doorway that has no door is a chain. From the chain hangs a sign: SECURED. The messenger puts one chilly palm on the door frame and leans over the chain. He sees Billy, asleep on one of the tattered red leatherette sofas. He is in his dress blues, which means he was on the beach last night, which means anything, though in Billy's case surely not nothing. Three red hash marks slice diagonally down his forearm. Three hitches of four years each. And he is now on the fourth. His arm hangs over the side and the back of his hand, palm up, is on the deck next to his white hat. Next to that is a battered paperback copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus, and next to that is an upright, nearly empty bottle of Ripple. He snores in uneasy spurts.

The messenger steps over the chain. The cocky swagger is gone. He shakes Billy gently. "Bad-Ass, wake up, it's way the hell past reveille. You missed chow."

Billy stirs and rolls over onto his back. His eyes click open and he is awake, though still. There is no yawning and stretching. He has the tendency to open his eyes wider than is necessary and the forehead that was at ease in sleep becomes wrinkled. He looks older than his age, thirty-two.

"Did you say I missed chow?"

"Yeah, it's after nine."

"Tell me that's not why you woke me, lad. Would you tell me that?"

The messenger moves back uneasily. No one here has ever seen Billy in a violent moment, but no one suspects that he is nonviolent.

"No, man, the chief MAA sent me. He wants to see you right away."

"Well, did you tell the chief MAA that he could go fuck himself?"

The messenger smiles. "Yeah, but he said he ain't in the mood and I'd better get you fast or it's my ass."

"What can he do? Put you in the galley, up at four thirty, knock off at eight o'clock, good training for a young seaman deuce."

"C'mon, man, don't break my balls, I'm just trying to get along. It's something really big-deal I think. Maybe your orders came through."

"Maybe," says Billy Bad-Ass. "Maybe tomorrow I'll be in a new ship and underway to a new place where everything's different and they don't know me and I don't know them. You got a ciggy?"

The messenger gives him a cigarette and Billy puts one hand beneath his head and smokes.

"Fell asleep last night, you know where?"

"Yeah, here."

"No, before that. Fell asleep on the railroad tracks. Yeah. My head right on the rail. Like to freeze it off. Wonder what a man looks like when a train's gone over his frozen head. Something to think about."

"What were you doing?"

"I had just got it for free."

"No shit?"

"Yep, a radioman's old lady off the Rockridge. Didn't cost me a dime. Matterafact, she gave me this wine when I left. You're talking to a very big dealer."

"Back home I got it for free all the time, all I wanted."

"Everyone gets it back home. Get it in Norfolk, that's the challenge. But, lad, you're talking to the original Billy Bad-Ass. You ain't had pussy since pussy's had you. Your momma told me. And did you ever notice you look a lot like me? I think I knew your momma."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah,"

"C'mere a little closer, lad. I'm gonna make a confession to you."

The messenger is tentative. He doesn't trust Billy. He inclines his head toward him but not so close that he couldn't leap away if he had to.

"Sometimes," says Billy, "I think there's more to life than pussy. I tell you this only because you're a nice kid and I think you can keep a secret. Billy Bad-Ass says, sometimes there's more to life than pussy."

"Gee, Mr. Bad-Ass, can I put that on a plaque and hang it at the end of my rack when I go to sea?"

"They'd never send a shitbird like you to sea."

"Like hell. I know my orders are going to be for some damn tin can and I'm gonna wind up on the friggin' deck force."

"What's this navy coming to, trust a baby like you on deep water."

"Think I'm crazy about it? Remember what they say: the worst shore duty is better than the best sea duty."

"You been listening to a lot of noise from crusty old stewburners who shouldn't be in the navy anyway. They should be frying onions in some slop chute. There ain't nothing better in the world than being on the sea — even in the navy. When I'm at sea, I'm up on the bridge talking to ships, man. Across miles of liquid real estate, I'm communicating with a ship. Okay, so it's only another signalman, but you know what I mean. There ain't no place where the air is cleaner and you might see flying fish or porpoise or even a whale if you luck out. At dusk the sky might be like it's on fire and in the morning it's as sharp as a crack across the face. And then you have storms where you have to lash yourself in the rack, but when it's over you rock to sleep like you were a baby again. So don't give me a ration of noise about shore duty. When you're out at sea, you're doing man's work and there ain't much of that left any more. Besides, you don't get into trouble at sea. No booze, no pussy, no money. Just a man and his job."

"Jesus, Bad-Ass, stop it, I'm getting all misty inside."

"I got your misty inside — dangling, lad."

The messenger pushes Billy's book with the toe of his shoe and asks, "What're you reading?"

"Book about a guy kills another guy."

"Anybody get laid in it?"

"No. Yeah. He does get laid in it."

"Any good?"

"Pretty good. This guy writes with a pencil."

"Huh? What do you mean, with a pencil?"

"Lotsa guys write with Dictaphones. You know, never use one line of dialogue when you can run it up to three pages, but this guy, this Camus guy. Something else."

"You oughta write skin books, Bad-Ass, you got a good line of shit. I like 'em where everybody gets laid and there's no wasting time on descriptions."

"No descriptions?" says Billy. "Not even like, 'My tongue seemed to have a mind of its own and slid up her smooth white thigh to the dark silken fleece of her Venus mound and then through to the warm moist shelter of her grotto of passion?'"

The messenger whistles softly through his teeth. "Jesus Christ, Bad-Ass! Where'd you learn that? You really oughta be writing skin books."

Billy sits upright. He finishes the Ripple in one long pull, replaces the top, and throws the empty into a nearby wastebasket. The loud noise it makes makes him press his temples for a moment. Then with his hands he signals to the messenger, who doesn't understand the semaphore: QUEBEC, UNIFORM, INDIA, ECHO, TANGO — quiet. Talking with his hands in semaphore is a habit he fell into when he was learning his trade. He would practice while waiting in the chow line, standing watch, sitting on the pot, so that now his hands move so rapidly over the signals they look like blue jays bothering a cat. He is hardly conscious of the habit.

He stands up, gives his white hat to the messenger, and puts the book under his armpit. With the messenger trailing him, he walks down the line of lockers, rapping random ones with his fist, making them clang in the stillness of the barracks.

"See here, lad. Sailors. Every locker a sailor. See this dent. An elbow. Here a knee, here a head. Every part of the human body has taken a whack at these lockers. Know what's inside?" He hits a locker. "The New Testament!" He hits another. "A French tickler." He continues to hit the lockers. "A tiki charm from St. Thomas, a flying cock-and-balls from Naples, a framed picture of a yellow-haired girl, a funny deck of playing cards."

He stops banging the lockers when he comes to his bunk. He tosses the book on the bunk, pulls off his towel and slings it around his neck.

"All of them together, they make a pretty good psychology textbook."

"What's in yours?" asks the messenger.

"Stephen Crane."

"Who's he?" asks the messenger.

"A skin book guy."


Billy takes his douche kit out of his locker and hooks it over his little finger. With the messenger trailing him, he walks unsteadily toward the head, semaphoring with his hands: HOTEL, ECHO, ALPHA, DELTA. They go into the head. Nine of ten urinals have masking tape across them and are marked: SECURED. Billy rips the tape away from one and fumbles with the thirteen buttons on the front of his trousers.

"You know, lad if I were a marine, I wouldn't have to mess with these buttons. I'd just take off my hat."

The messenger laughs. Billy tears the tape off a wash bin. He fills it up with water and plunges his head into it.

Billy's name, of course, is not Bad-Ass. In the same way that Pigalle became Pig Alley, that San Pablo became Sand Pebble, Buddusky became Bad-Ass, which in navy parlance means a very tough customer. The term is always used with the name Billy to achieve the effect of the alliterative trochee. If it were not his natural given name, his shipmates would have called him Billy anyway.

Billy does not feel one way or the other about the distortion of his surname. The truth was that Buddusky itself was a distortion of some other similar-sounding name. During the great immigration push Billy's grandfather, a twenty-year-old cabinetmaker, stood with the huddled masses on Ellis Island and gave his name to a civil service officer, who, a bit peeved by these absurd Polish names, wrote down what he thought he heard. Billy's grandfather thought only an ungrateful fool would question the way things are done in America; so from that moment on he became Buddusky and the other name, whatever it had been, was never used again.

His grandfather drifted out of New York after landing and supported himself by doing some intricate work on church organs in Pennsylvania. He spent three years in the Allentown-Easton-Bethlehem area and was known as a sober, promising young craftsman. In Allentown he met Mary Grace Prosick, a seamstress his age, and they decided that it would be a wise economic move to marry.

A friend told him that coal and the railroad were making the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area a prosperous place in which to make a home. The Protestant churches in the Lehigh Valley had been good to Billy's grandfather but he thought he should not count on such luck continuing indefinitely. They moved to Scranton and settled in an area known as Providence, a homey, pleasant place built on small hills of cobblestone roads and inhabited by butchers, carpenters, miners, railroad men, and other assorted laborers and craftsmen. They were predominantly German, but there were strong enclaves of Russians, Lithuanians, and Poles.

It was in Scranton that Billy's grandfather attained his life's only distinction, the one thing he could, and did, talk about for the rest of his days: he worked for the Scranton family. In their mansion he built one corner cabinet and the family was so taken by his diligent craftsmanship and the beauty of his woodwork that they retained him for several months on a variety of projects. After that he could always say to business prospects, "I worked for the Scrantons and they liked my work." His family would never know poverty. To his friends he could describe the interior of the Scranton mansion and comment upon the personalities of its inhabitants. He often said that young Bill Scranton would be governor someday and it would have pleased him immeasurably to see it, but he died three years before that happy event.

Billy's father was born in Scranton, the first of four children. He was named Stashu and he carried the family's dream for a scholar. John, born eighteen months later, was to be his father's apprentice, but instead went into the mines until his first near-fatal cave-in. After that he headed west and was killed in Tulsa when a valve he was unloading from a freight car fell on him.

The two girls, Sophie and Ruth came next. Sophie died at seventeen when her mother gave her a physic for a stomachache that turned out to be appendicitis, and Ruth became an itinerant tramp whose aim in life was to wake up every morning in a different town next to a different man. Billy cannot remember ever seeing Aunt Ruth, and her name was seldom mentioned.

So it was for Stashu to fulfill his parents' dreams of having an educated man in the family because throughout the history of the Buddusky and Prosick families there had never been a man with a degree or diploma of any kind. When Stashu finally did receive an B.A. in English from Stroudsburg State Teachers College, the family fairly exploded with pride. For two days friends and neighbors came in to drink beer and eat kielbasa, pierogies, bleenies, and if anyone had said that Stroudsberg wasn't such a hot school anyway, Stashu's father could not be held responsible for what he might do. It was a degree, from an accredited four-year college, and Stashu was recognized on campus as being a very good student. What's more, he was to be a teacher in Andoshen, an anthracite town sixty miles southwest of Scranton. At last, an intellectual Buddusky. It could happen only in America. Stashu's father was content.

Stashu, however, was not. He too took great pride in his accomplishment, but it was not enough. Always there was in the back of his mind the voice that whispered, "Dumb Polack." He wanted to become principal of the school even before he began his first day there as a teacher.

He quickly established a reputation as an "ambitious young teacher." He volunteered for every committee and willingly accepted all assignments. He was well-liked by the rest of the faculty because they were not so ambitious and were glad to be relieved of onerous tasks.

But he never did become principal. He could never even make department chairman on the small faculty. At first he thought it was because he was Polish, but in Andoshen Poles and Lithuanians were in the majority. Then he thought it might be because he was trying too hard, so he relaxed. He stopped volunteering, he groused occasionally. He soon found he enjoyed relaxing and stopped pushing altogether. His popularity with the students, never high, improved somewhat, the esteem of his colleagues did not lessen and he never made department chairman or principal. He finally confessed to himself that he was nothing but a dumb Polack and he might as well lie back and enjoy it. He never bothered to find another job.

When he was thirty he married Ellen Berbow, an elementary school teacher, twenty-seven and a native of Andoshen. Three years later they had a son, William James and three years after that had another son, Ernest Scott.

In spite of his father's reputation as the family intellectual, Billy, at about age twelve, considered him something of a birdbrain and that early assessment of his father never changed with the passing years. He rejected his father's advice to attend Bloomsburg State Teachers College and instead joined the navy. His reason for joining the navy was that it was the only service whose uniform did not require you to wear a tie. He had no reason for joining the service in general except that he was told he could retire when he was thirty-eight, and since most people don't retire until sixty-five, the service sounded like a pretty good deal. Besides, he wanted to get far away from his father, who had a habit of spoiling things for him. Books, for instance. Billy started reading at an early age and enjoyed books until his father insisted that he understand them. Even though his father talked books to death, Billy didn't stop reading. He read on the sly instead and never spoke to his father about another book unless it was a schoolbook and he had no way out. The other books he would read and think about for himself. It took him years to be able to read a book and ignore the demands of his father. At eighteen Billy made a discovery that improved his relationship with his father. He discovered geography and put as much of it as he could between him and his family.


Excerpted from "The Last Detail"
by .
Copyright © 1970 Darryl Ponicsán.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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