Witness to a transformative decade in gay history.
By the time novelist and critic Peck (The Garden of Lost and Found, 2012, etc.) came out in 1987, a potent drug cocktail had emerged that controlled the course of HIV, lessening its likelihood to lead to full-blown AIDS and certain death. He recounts the effect of that discovery on gay culture, on America’s attitudes toward homosexuality and on his own experiences. Woven through the book are references to serial killers of gay men, about whom Peck reported early in his career. Cobbled together from revised essays and articles, the memoir sometimes lapses into repetition and shows its seams. The author, who has honed a reputation for scathing critiques, offers a withering indictment of Andrew Sullivan, whose revisionist gay history demonized pre-AIDS gay culture “as a nonstop party” that he believed would be reincited by the development of combination therapy. Peck also dismisses some queer theorists whose “performative modalities…often seemed like experiments in egotism and anomie.” He effusively praises Larry Kramer, Michael Cunningham and Tony Kushner, whose Angels in America (2003) contributed to making gay activists “more visible, more capable of influencing the things said about us on a national level.” As a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power when he was in his early 20s, Peck stood proudly among those activists, attending meetings and marches, helping out with mundane office work, preparing clean needles for addicts, and reading everything he could find written by a gay man, lesbian or transgendered person. Literature, he writes, “happened to get better in response to AIDS, at least for a while,” since it reflected the visceral rage and despair of the time. He is despondent, though, about a tendency to normalize and distance AIDS. Instead, he calls for narratives that force readers “to find the existence of the epidemic unbearable.”
Raw and heartfelt—though uneven—Peck’s hybrid memoir contributes to that goal.