Honorable Silence: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell by editor Kris Jacen

The debate over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) continued to rage in the United States when I picked up this anthology. By the time I had finished reading and was ready to begin writing this review the U.S. Senate had already voted to repeal DADT opening the door for the U.S. to join the grouping of liberal democracies around the world that had rid them selves of such anachronistic, ridiculous and harmful policies and laws years ago. I am ecstatic that what was only a few short weeks ago an anthology of, for the most part, contemporary stories about some of the impacts of DADT on gay service men, is now a compilation of what used to be with DADT thankfully passing into history.

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Honorable Silence: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell by editor Kris Jacen is an anthology of four stories that deal with different thematic aspects of the issues faced by gay men serving in the U.S. military under laws and policies that required them to remain closeted, lest they be discharged because of their sexual orientation. They served in honourable silence, denying the essence of who they are and whom they love while they sacrificed their lives in defence of their country.

The compilation provides an eclectic mix of stories of varying genres and lengths. Afterburn by Lex Valentine and Foresake Not by Maura Anderson fall within the realm of romance; William Maltese’s Strategic Maneuvers is erotica; and The Loss of Innocence Store by George Seaton is literary fiction. And with the exception of The Loss of Innocence Store, a short story of about thirty pages, the other stories are fuller length and read as short novellas.

Three of the stories are set against the backdrop of DADT, which was instituted under the Clinton presidency in 1993 and was officially ended when President Obama signed its repeal on December 22, 2010. One story takes the reader back some twenty years prior to DADT to the 1970s and a time when similar regressive policies were in place with the whisper or hint of suspicion of being gay resulting in an automatic discharge.

The anthology’s cover graces artist Michael Breyette’s beautiful and perhaps one of his most renowned works aptly entitled, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which not only makes a haunting and powerful statement about DADT, but in my humble opinion also represents some the best in contemporary American agitprop art.

As a reader who enjoys anthologies because of my love of the short story I do expect and even welcome a level of diversity with respect to writing style, tone, story focus, variations on theme, and yes even writing quality when reading compilations. But at the same time there should be a thread of harmony that ties together diverse stories within an overall theme. Unfortunately, I did not find this level of consonance with Honorable Silence because I felt the stories were too divergent in particular in the mood that each story evoked as part of the larger thematic whole.

While the four stories did not come together for me within the context of this anthology, read as stand-alone titles each one has its merits and to varying degrees I did enjoy all four, although Mr. Seaton’s The Loss of Innocence Store remains my favourite. In this respect I believe that the stories would likely fare better as single titles or in combination with other stories. As an anthology my overall rating for Honorable Silence is 3.5 stars and is based on the sum average of the individual review and rating of each of the stories as offered below.

Afterburn by Lex Valentine – 3 stars

Afterburn by Lex Valentine pays homage to the men and women of the United States Air Force (USAF) Thunderbirds Demonstration Team and is the story of two Air Force test pilots, Sebastien “Bas” Marchetti and Ryder Beckette who meet and immediately fall for one another attempting a relationship under DADT.

Following the death of his father Bas leaves the Air Force and a stellar twenty-year career as a test and fighter pilot to take over the family aerobatic business. Bas meets Ryder when he shows up inquiring about a room rental. Their sexual attraction is instant and they spend little time getting naked and jumping into bed. What starts off as great sex quickly turns to love and a relationship. Now that Bas has left the Air Force he’s out and has no intention of going back in the closet. But Ryder is still a test pilot for the USAF and therefore under the looming eye of DADT. Bas loves Ryder but feels they should keep their relationship a secret in order to protect Ryder’s career. Ryder on the other hand doesn’t want to hide and is willing to sacrifice his career to be with the man he loves.

In Afterburn Lex Valentine provides the reader with an enjoyable m/m romance escape of love at first sight as Bas and Ryder spend little time getting together and falling in love, while at the same time infusing the story with some of the real issues that gay service men face in attempting to have a same-sex relationship under DADT.

Afterburn has all the ingredients of an m/m romance with plenty of sex and angst to keep things interesting. Except that the angst in this case has nothing to do with how well Bas and Ryder get along, but rather the stresses that are placed on their relationship because they cannot be out and honest about the fact that they are a couple. This stress hits home for both characters when an incident leaves Ryder injured and Bas unable to get to him because he isn’t family, their relationship is a secret and even if it wasn’t it would not be recognized as legitimate by the military.

Although there was a tendency to tell rather than show the story, Afterburn provides a good balance of romance, sex and angst that I believe readers of m/m romance will enjoy.

The Loss of Innocence Store by George Seaton – 5 stars

In The Loss on Innocence Store, George Seaton once again weaves his word magic by gifting the reader with a quiet and introspective story of a man in his middle years as he looks back on his short time in the Army (circa 1972-1974) which he entered at the age of twenty-four and other events in his life that helped shape him. Written in the first person, our unnamed protagonist provides glimpses into his experiences in the military while stationed at Fort Polk and at bases in North Eastern Texas and Norfolk, Virginia, as well as his discoveries about his sexuality and himself.

Mr. Seaton both begins and ends this story with the focal point of a gay bar in Denver that over the years has been frequented by the protagonist as a reference for the passage of time, with the changes that the bar undergoes over time in terms of its décor, clientele and activities marking not only the protagonist’s experiences and growth as a soldier and gay man, but more generally the state of gay rights and life in America over the years.

The prose is beautifully written and while the narrative voice of the protagonist is one that imparts a sense of wisdom shaped by age and no doubt the life lessons accrued along the way, the underlying resentment and anger of the state of affairs for not only gay soldiers within the military but for LGBT people within the broader society resonate throughout his narrative. In the end, our protagonist rightfully concludes that his worth as a soldier has, or should have, absolutely nothing to do with his sexuality, but ultimately with the content of his character, his honour and his substance as a man.

“Queer, yes. But a soldier first. An honorable endeavor, savored as the first act of a man, made from a boy, who once stared at the tops of tall Louisiana Pines and saw hawks soar with a singular primordial purpose that required no asking, no telling – something like the purpose of a boy to become a man.”

Of the four stories in this anthology, The Loss of Innocence Store is the best written and my favourite. It is both thoughtful and evocative but above all it is an extremely intimate and moving look into a man’s heart and mind of not only his experiences as a soldier, or even a gay soldier, but more importantly those that helped him toward self-realisation and self-acceptance. The beauty, fluidity and power of Mr. Seaton’s writing continue to amaze me and I read this story with a perpetual lump in my throat. He truly is a word alchemist.

Foresake Not by Maura Anderson – 3 stars

Leo is in the Infantry and on a month’s R&R state’s side after a near brush with death in Iraq where his best friend and team-mate Terry sacrificed his life to save Leo and the other men in their unit. Leo is having a difficult time dealing with Terry’s death. While visiting Terry’s grave at Arlington Cemetery he meets Rob an injured sniper in the Marines and Terry’s childhood best friend. Leo and Rob strike up a conversation and arrange to get together to share their respective stories and memories of Terry. As they get to know one another they not only share their feelings and grief about Terry but also their fears of not being able to continue their service. Leo is worried about being thrown out of the Army because he may have outed himself during an altercation with another soldier in defence of Terry, and Rob may not be able to return to full service because of his injury. In the process they realise their attraction to one another and their relationship quickly turns from friendship to something more.

Foresake Not is a sweet story and the most romantic in this collection. The trope of two strangers sharing in their grief over the loss of a mutual friend and in the process falling in love is a familiar and comfortable one within the m/m romance genre and I easily settled into this tale. Leo and Rob are both sympathetic characters and the story is told through Leo’s well-developed perspective. However, there was one shortcoming for me in that the overly descriptive prose of the mundane actions of each of the characters proved to be a distraction and resulted in the telling rather than the showing of the story. The over-detailed descriptions kept stealing my attention and interest away from the story and its characters, and unfortunately in the end did hamper my overall enjoyment of it.

Strategic Maneuvers by William Maltese – 3.5 stars

Strategic Maneuvers is written as a series of vignettes of varying lengths that depict the sexual encounters of the main characters Thomas and Pablo first as they individually prepare to enter the Army, and then when they meet as new enlistees during physical inspection. Knowing that their opportunities for sex in this man’s army will be extremely limited Thomas and Pablo waste no time in getting together for sex upon their initial meeting. While they go through basic training together they are eventually separated and the story continues by providing alternate glimpses of each man’s experience during their three years apart. Owing to a powerful and well-connected family friend and lover who pulls some strings, Thomas is stationed in South Korea enjoying a cushy desk assignment. Pablo who enters the Army as a result of a court order and as an alternative to jail time, does not fare as well and is sent to the Afghanistan front to serve out his three years in active duty. Both Thomas and Pablo eventually return home and find each other once again. They resume their relationship both changed by their experiences, with Pablo clearly wearing the scars of war.

This story is based on the author’s personal experiences in the military where he readily admits that despite homophobic and restrictive policies, sexual encounters among men were plentiful albeit covert. I found Strategic Maneuvers to be quite an interesting story in that while on many levels it is pure erotica, or as trademarked by the author himself a “one-handed read,” it nonetheless does capture the essence of men doing what they need and have to in order to get together for not only sexual release but also for a level of intimacy and companionship under the watchful eye of DADT.

The story is well written and the tongue and cheek manner in which Maltese depicts Thomas and Pablo’s sexual encounters provides for a humorous account of their experiences. I enjoyed the honest depiction of sexual need and sex between and amongst the primary and secondary characters and in this sense the story is what I refer to as unencumbered erotica in that there is no necessity to infuse it with elements of romance. The story is also somewhat bittersweet in particular as it relates to Pablo’s experiences as he returns from Afghanistan scarred by the horrors of war. In all, I very much enjoyed Strategic Maneuvers and recommend it as well written erotica with an underlying message.

Honorable Silence: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell by editor Kris Jacen is available at MLR Press.

NOTE: This review was originally published online at Three Dollar Bill Reviews.

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