Book Reviews

As Far As I Can Tell: Finding My Father in World War II by Philip Gambone at Rattling Good Yarns Press

Genre Gay / Contemporary / Historical / 20th Century / Warriors/Soldiers / Fiction
Reviewed by Bob-O-Link on 11-November-2020

Book Blurb

Philip Gambone, a gay man, never told his father the reason why he was rejected from the draft during the Vietnam War. In turn, his father never talked about his participation in World War II. Father and son were enigmas to each other. Gambone, an award-winning novelist and non-fiction writer, spent seven years uncovering who the man his quiet, taciturn father had been, by retracing his father's journey through WW II. As Far As I Can Tell not only reconstructs what Gambone’s father endured, it also chronicles his own emotional odyssey as he followed his father’s route from Liverpool to the Elbe River. A journey that challenged the author’s thinking about war, about European history, and about “civilization."


Book Review

Mr. Gambone has produced a fascinating but odd work. The reader is likely to become completely engaged, or may put is it away part of the way through. It is presented as a memoir of his father’s life, concentrating on his European military service during World War II. But, save for many contemporary photographs, the senior Mr. Gambone has left almost no original source material. Nor did the author encounter anyone who knew his father at that time. With grand research into the writings of many others who “were there”, ‘As Far As I Can Tell’ is mostly of a reimagination of a place and time. Who knows? Perhaps this style will be tomorrow’s popular biographical form, somewhat dependent on access to Facebook and Twitter, and somewhat a “guessology”. Nonetheless, we become I became immersed in what may be quite the first-generation immigrant family of the Depression – with developing aspirations to gain a seat at the middle-class table, including the new midcentury norm of attaining a high school diploma.        


Mr. Gambone, our author, also seems to stretch making his book also a presentation of his own life’s issues, including acknowledging his homosexuality to gain a 4-F draft classification during the Vietnam draft, and his eventual coming out to family. Early on he learned to hide any feminine characteristics, or his attraction to boys – made easier because “Silence continued to be the leitmotif of my relationship with Dad.” Is this so contrapuntal to his desire to connect with his father? And so difficult when it is his mother who undertakes to buy his first jockstrap for high school gym?


The author has finely succeeded in presenting the sense, perhaps even the feel, of the time, with little “plot” and less emotional camouflage. For the right reader, this works perfectly as a double biography. And Mr. Gambone often shows his literary skill, e.g., in the latrines: “…imagine sitting with a dozen defecating men, knees almost touching, with shorts or trousers bunched around your ankles.” And then he lets us “experience” D-Day from the G.I.’s point of view.   


The description of post-draft training, and the subsequent movement of peoples and politicians, should quite satisfy those interested in this genre, among which, as a Barbara Tuchman devotee (i.e., ‘Guns of August’, ‘The Proud Tower’), I claim my place or of pride.


Here is an old conundrum for the bibliographer: Where does the subject’s story end, or how does it become notedly modified by the life of the author? When we are done, how much have we learned about Philip Gambone’s father? How much about the author? And, does it really matter?


So, ‘As Far As I Can Tell’ is a social and military history, a travelogue, a study of family inter-relations, a memoir (or, perhaps, a fantastical hypothesis of family). It turns out that the senior Mr. Gambone chose not to talk about his war experiences – however they affected him. Nonetheless, our the author concludes that his relationship with his father is more complete for having written this book. “I will never know how high the tuition was that Dad had to pay, not will I fully understand what lesson he took away from the War,” having used this writing as an odyssey to establish perhaps at least a one-way relationship with his father.   



* NOTE (from Wikipedia) - Philip Gambone was born on July 21, 1948 in WakefieldMassachusetts. His writing has covered many genres, including novels and short stories, personal reminiscence, non-fiction, and scholarly essays, as well as book reviews and interviews. He has published 4 book-length works, beginning with a collection of short stories titled The Language We Use Up Here in 1991 (nominated for a Lambda Literary Award). Other short stories have appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. Something Inside: Conversations with Gay Fiction Writers appeared in 1999, which Publisher's Weekly said "carefully prob(ed) interviews provide insight into the working methods and aesthetic, personal and social concerns of a varied group" and that his "knowledge of each writer's work and his sensitivity to the craft is impressive".


His first novel, Beijing: A Novel, appeared in 2003. Multicultural Review noted that "What makes the book of special interest to readers of multicultural literature is its portrayal of an honest effort to see, understand, and become emotionally involved in another culture without being patronizing or distant".


Another collection of non-fiction pieces based on interviews appeared in 2010 under the title Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans. 



**AND ANOTHER NOTE – While certainly not intending any derogation of the fine critical aspects of Rainbow Book Reviews, the potential reader of  ‘As Far As I Can Tell’ is also directed to complementary praises from some fellow members of Mr. Gambone’s literary coven – such as Michael Lowenthal, author of ‘Paternity Test’; Hon. Barney Frank, former congressman, Massachusetts; Paul Lisicky, author of ‘Later: My Life at the Edge of the World’; Andrew Holleran, author of ‘Dancer from the Danc’e. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that gathering!






DISCLAIMER: Books reviewed on this site were usually provided at no cost by the publisher or author. This book has been provided by Rattling Good Yarns for the purpose of a review.


Additional Information

Format paperback
Length Novel, 474 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 30-October-2020
Price $28.95 paperback
Buy Link