Carroll lets fly at writing Former Navy pilot turns his Vietnam experience into an 'excellent' first novel Carroll writes first novel about Navy aviators in Vietnam.

November 22, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

Leonardtown -- Now Gerry Carroll can enjoy the fun part of having a first novel published. He can savor admiring reviews for "North S*A*R," his book about Navy pilots in Vietnam, and appreciate the experience of a stranger walking up in the post office and telling him, "Good book."

It means a lot to get praise from old Navy buddies -- so difficult to fool because they, too, saw it all. One even told him, "It was like you typed up tapes from my youth."

But 18 months ago, when Gerry Carroll sat down to write his book, he had the usual neophyte author's doubts, and then some. He had just retired from the Navy after 20 years as an aviator. Tom Clancy, an old classmate from Loyola High School who went on to become a top-selling author, had been beating him upside the head for years to write a book, and had even recommended his own high-powered agent. Mr. Carroll had gotten a comfortable advance from a publisher, enough that he could devote a couple of years to see if he could pull off a long-dreamed-of writing career. Now all he had to do was draw from his own wealth of experience and write the Vietnam book he had envisioned.

"I had Tommy on one end, one of the best agents in the business [Robert Gottlieb] on the other, and a publisher [Pocket Books] that, for some reason, had a lot of faith in me," Mr. Carroll, 44, says ruefully. "I was thinking, 'Am I going to be able to do this?' "

He knew what he wanted to write about: Vietnam in 1972, when it was clear the United States was going to lose the war, and the lives of Navy aviators who had to do their jobs and somehow believe in them when few others did.

He also knew what "North S*A*R" would not be about.

"I'd read a lot of Vietnam books and just get tired of the same thing: the stupid captain, the bad guys who are out there trying to kill me, the obligatory guy on drugs, the obligatory redneck," says Mr. Carroll, a big, bearish man who can show a ready wit in one sentence and a sober, reflective side in the next.

"I got sick and tired of everybody apologizing for being in the military. There are so many books out about 'poor little me -- I was in the war.' If guys feel that way, fine. I don't. I was doing what I always wanted to do, which was flying Navy aircraft, and part of the price is that sooner or later you're going to get shot at."

He completed the manuscript by January of this year, focusing the novel on two pilots -- one flying an A-7 attack jet, the other flying rescue missions in an H-3 Sea King Combat Search and Rescue ("S*A*R") helicopter. Mr. Clancy gave the book two big boosts, contributing not only an extremely generous blurb on the cover -- "This is the best first novel I have ever read" -- but also an introduction -- rare for a piece of fiction by a first-time author.

Although Mr. Clancy had been generous with blurbs and other means of support for writers in the past, he admits that writing the introduction did give him pause. "Actually, I was afraid it would backfire" and overshadow Carroll's effort, he says, "but his editor asked me to do it and said to trust him on it."

A positive response

Pocket Books sent "North S*A*R" on its way this month with a first printing of more than 50,000, a high figure for a first book. Early reviews have been generally positive: "The tempo breaks the sound barrier," a reviewer wrote in the New York Daily News.

"In a way it's exciting, now that it's all done, but in another way it's frightening," Mr. Carroll acknowledges in the kitchen of his Southern Maryland home. "I'd always had the feeling that I had written a pretty good book, but you never really know -- you're immersed in the thing. But the response from those who have read it has been great."

Mr. Clancy says he wasn't at all surprised. "I think it's excellent," he says. "I wouldn't have called it the best first novel I've ever read if it weren't. Gerry's got drama, he's got humor, he knows how to pace the book, and the quality of his prose is really excellent."

The two had become friends while attending Loyola, but after graduating in 1965 they went separate ways: Mr. Clancy to Loyola College before becoming an insurance agent and then hugely successful novelist, and Mr. Carroll to Boston College before becoming a Navy pilot.

He learned to fly 37 types of aircraft and went out on close to 200 combat missions in Vietnam, Lebanon and Grenada, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other medals.

Flying mostly rescue missions in Vietnam, he was shot down three times, "but all I got was a couple of bruises. None of the medals I got were for offensive action. They were for rescue. I'm proud as hell of that." Then he looks at the floor and flashes a smile: "Actually, the reason was that I was a terrible shot."

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