Out of Step: A Memoir
By Anthony Moll
The Ohio State University Press, 2018
168 pages, $18.95
Reviewed by Jeff Gilliland
“I grew up with the same mythologies as other dumb American boys,” Anthony Moll begins in Out of Step. “Yet when I picture a statue of David, I do not imagine Michelangelo’s seventeen-foot tall marble masterpiece.” Instead, he says, he identifies better with Donatello’s sculpture, “an effeminate and delicate boy, hand on his hip like some bratty bottom…mixed up in someone else’s war by folly and by a childish pride: that’s my David.”
Winner of The Journal’s 2018 Non/Fiction Prize at OSU, Out of Step follows Moll, the pink-haired, bisexual punk rock kid from Nevada who joins the Army after 9/11 and rises through the ranks during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era. The memoir delights in deconstructing the macho ritual of the U.S. military and elegantly examines Moll’s evolution from queer iconoclast to closeted soldier to somewhere in between. In wry, captivating prose, Moll renders a vivid image of himself as a man “caught between two spaces” — a queer progressive who rebels against the military’s homophobic policies and an earnest young American who volunteered for war to improve his lot and do good in the world. He defies definition from both sides, challenging the “clear lines drawn around [straight people’s]understanding of sex and gender” yet recognizing the military’s role as “a ladder out of poverty” for him and thousands of other young people. In doing so, he captures the American ethos with a complexity rarely seen in today’s partisan times.
Moll tells his story through a series of imagistic vignettes, intertwining tales of life on an Army base with reflections on photos from before, during, and after his service. Through meditations on body marks, dogs, punk shows, and more, Moll examines the “war racket” that dehumanizes and de-individuates vulnerable young people, making them into assets that can be inventoried and deployed just like their rifles. Often his reflections are witty and satirical, as in his chapter on the bizarre, almost peacock-like performance of the Soldier of the Year competition. At other times, they are disturbing reminders of the inhumanity of the Iraq War, from Abu Ghraib to American soldiers filming themselves throwing a dog off a cliff. “This is how they [the military]get twenty-somethings to do outlandish things,” he writes: “by telling them that they are superheroes.”
The primary backdrop for Out of Step, of course, is Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Throughout the memoir, Moll clashes with the policy both overtly—such as when he has frantic, fumbling sex with another male recruit in a broom closet—and covertly, by befriending other queer soldiers or “forgo[ing]the required beret in my uniform because I don’t want to mess up my hair.” Despite being groomed for a career in the Army, Moll cannot abide the culture of toxic masculinity that pervades the military and eventually leaves to join an LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit. Some of his friends, however, are not so lucky: in one of the book’s most stirring moments, Moll remembers his friend Michelle, a queer Afghanistan war veteran who killed herself in the parking lot of a VA hospital.
Perhaps the most impressive element of Out of Step is its balance. Moll does not sugarcoat the actions of his comrades in the post-9/11 years, but neither does he demonize them—instead, he contextualizes them, empathizes with them, and seeks to help his readers better understand what soldiers go through. His aim seems to be less to prove a point than to describe a world: one that defies binary breakdowns of “gay” and “straight,” that blurs the line between warrior and drag queen, that illuminates “a whole queer reality…just beneath the battle-dress uniform, beneath the flag, beneath the suburbs, barely hidden behind everything you want to call America.”
Out of Step is a collection of essays, many of which Moll published separately, and it is clear that writing them helped him find his voice and work out how to get his message with great impact. He is a writer to watch out for, and Out of Step is a profound and memorable reflection on a time that we hopefully will never see again.