Rating: 4 of 5
Author: Edward C. Patterson
Available: Paperback, Kindle
Winslow Gibbs has no business being the army. He’s overweight, out of shape, lonely and different. Unable to get past the first rung on the monkey bars, Gibbs quickly earns the nickname Pillsbury Doughboy in the mess hall. Of course, he doesn’t want to be in the army at all, but in 1967, the draft had other ideas. Unable to cut basic training, Gibbs is moved to a new platoon in the Special Training Unit One – the last stop before either making it back to basic or getting a Section 8 which would haunt him for life. He quickly learns that his new unit is the army’s equivalent to the land of misfit toys – not just the troops but the sergeants as well. The group also has something else in common, they’re all gay. Well all but Gibbs, or so he believes.
Life in Special Unit One is a nightmare. Gibbs is taunted daily by his sergeant. The PT course and twenty-mile walks, turn his body into an aching chafed amorphous blob. Throughout it all though, Gibbs fails to give in continuing to work his body and forge friendships which provide him support and confidence as he takes on each challenge. One day, Gibbs finds his ribs again as his physique takes shape and he frees himself from the physical bondage of his former body. But what of his emotional bondage?
While reading Surviving an American Gulag by Edward C Patterson, I was reminded of Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues. Patterson provides a memoir-like novel whose protagonist searches for who he is amidst the chaos and challenges of basic training. This is a poignant novel about how the military treated it’s gay recruits and how a rag tag group struggled to overcome substantial obstacles. I found myself cheering for Gibbs in the novel’s closing chapters as his confidence and abilities grew along with his self discovery. While Surviving an American Gulag primarily refers to Special Unit One as the Gulag, the parallel gulag is the one Gibbs has created for himself regarding his admission and acceptance of his own homosexuality. Patterson masterfully crafts these two gulags together and Gibbs’s triumph over each.
Finally, Patterson gives readers a special treat at the end with a small story called A Dime a Dip. I won’t give away it’s premise, but suffice to say it was a perfect companion story and closing chapter which brought a tear to my eye. Well done Mr. Patterson.