Assigned to baby-sit a loose-cannon colonel at remote Wheelus Air Base, Libya, handsome, hard-charging Captain Joe Harding spends his off-duty time bedding an enlisted medic and a muscular major, then begins a nurturing friendship with the American ambassador’s teenage son. The boy swiftly develops a crush on the man, feelings that Joe, a Southern gent with a strong moral sense, feels he cannot acknowledge or return. Joe’s further adventures and misadventures during the course of the novel involve a clerk’s murder, a flight-surgeon’s drug abuse, a fist-fight in the officers’ club bar, a straight roommate whose taste for leather gets him in trouble, the combat death of Joe’s former lover, and participation in an all-male orgy witnessed by two very married but somewhat confused fighter jocks.
In the run-up to the 1967 war, a mob attacks the embassy in nearby Tripoli and the deranged colonel sets out to attack an Arab warship. To bring the pilots and their airplanes safely home and keep the United States out of the war Joe has two choices: either come out to his closest, straightest buddies or know himself to be a coward, a failure and a traitor to everything that he holds dear.
Review by Erastes
There’s something very engaging about Mackle’s writing. I couldn’t imagine that I’d be at all interested in this book–military realism set during a period I know absolutely nothing about–but damn! Mackle (who wooed and won me with his marvellous “It Takes Two“) had me gripped within a chapter of Captain Harding’s Six Day War and I was found myself enjoying reading about life on a military base and all its incestuous hothouse intrigue. Damn you, Elliott Mackle!
Imagine those wonderful 1950’s movies in black and white set in and around army bases. Films starring a youthful Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson and the like dressed in sharp light khaki and white shirts. Well, now add in a very likeable and not-at-all unhappy in his homosexual skin gay man who’s cautious and careful but up for action. Mix in a great supporting cast of friends (male and female) a couple of friends-with-benefits and a beautiful and dangerously young 17 year youth who calls to Harding like a candle does a moth. Shake vigorously with all the stresses that soldiers encounter in a tentative peace that could kick itself off at any time (although the Vietnam War is raging elsewhere) and you have a cocktail which proves to be a hugely gripping read.
Mackle was a soldier himself and draws on much of his own experiences and he delivers real gravitas and truth with this book. The claustrophobic village atmosphere of the base is like a powder keg and it becomes more and more pressurized when everything starts to hot up both militarily and personally for Harding.
Harding is a great character. He has a lot of heart but he’s a man, with very human foibles. He knows the drill when it comes to gaydar and setting up gay encounters. A couple of trusted buddies suits him fine. A NCO, Duane, who is often off base doing medical medicy duties (as you can see my military knowledge is so vast), and Hal–a major who only needs a bit of light “relief” but still can be depended on to watch Harding’s (and consequently his own) back when necessary.
Things start to go to pieces when Harding realises he’s falling for the too-young son of a local diplomat, and the young man professes his crush right back. He knows he’s not in love with Duane, although Duane has fallen in love with him and is desperate for that feeling to be returned. Harding finds himself torn in a dozen different ways, and as life often does, it lands him in a big mess with everything blowing up in his face–literally and figuratively in this case–all at once. A rash decision, fuelled by frustration and drink at a male-only party in town, and Harding’s world threatens to blow itself apart.
Don’t go thinking this is just about gay men getting it on–or not–because it’s far more than that, it’s also a well-researched, well-written story about a dangerous crisis in our near-history and it does a good job, I could easily see this as a film, it would even work well as a stage play, because of the claustrophobic nature of the setting. The characters are varied, entirely three-dimensional and range from every type you’d expect, and some you would not. There’s no open-sky dogfights on the page, just a man trying his best to stop his own world going to hell, the only fire fights that go on are him fire-fighting crises as they occur. It was nail-biting stuff, and towards the end of the book, in the thick of the action, I was holding my breath, alternating with a need to shut the book in case it all went horribly wrong.
The writing is crisp and mature. Not a word wasted or skipped. No extraneous passages; it’s as neat as a career soldier’s bunk space, everything in its place. If I have the smallest of quibbles about the language, it’s that to a complete layperson, such as myself, I was able to pick up some of the jargon that I’d learned from war films, such as NCO and AWOL–but many of the other acronyms were entirely beyond me, such as TDY, BOQ, TAC, OSI and others so I had to guess the gist of what they were saying. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing to have had a small glossary in for the uninitiated, and for those who are reading in bed and don’t want to get up, go downstairs and look up the words on the computer.
But that’s a very minor quibble, and not even worth chipping off half a point for. This is a proper gay book which strides the chasm of romance and litererachoor beautifully. It will appeal both to those who want a story with gay characters off doing stuff, and those who want Harding to have a satisfactory ending. I’m not spoiling it for you but my eyes were moist, that’s all I’m sayin’.
There are parts of the book that aren’t at all PC. This is 1967 and equal rights (hollow laugh) are still a way off. There are derogatory comments regarding skin colour, race, sexuality and much more. But this is realism, if you can’t handle people talking in a way that they used–still do–speak then go and read something else.
Mackle is probably one of my favourite writers in the genre, and if this spurs him on to write more of the same I’m going to be in the queue with my money clutched in my hand.
Do not miss this book, even if, like me, you don’t think that the setting would interest you. It will.`