THE GRAVEST SHOW ON EARTH: America in the Age of AIDS by Elinor Burkett


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Former Miami Herald reporter Burkett (coauthor of A Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church, 1993) flings accusations of greed, incompetence, and mendacity at virtually everyone who has had a part in the battle against AIDS in this immensely provocative overview of the epidemic. Burkett begins with devastating portraits of two emblematic figures in the AIDS crisis: the National Cancer Institute's Dr. Robert Gallo and playwright and activist Larry Kramer. Gallo apparently fudged data in order to wrest credit for identification of HIV from the actual French discoverers; Kramer cofounded Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP to bring attention to AIDS, but sabotaged many of his efforts by his abrasive hubris. Burkett finds their flaws reflected everywhere: in the pharmaceutical industry's outlandishly expensive drugs of dubious benefit, such as AZT; in fraudulent ""cures"" and mistaken claims of research breakthroughs that have been enthusiastically welcomed by activists convinced that any treatment is better than none; in the FDA, where politicians and industry-paid ""impartial"" product reviewers influence life-and-death decisions. Burkett suggests that the supposedly virginal Kimberly Bergalis, whose case gained national attention when she reportedly contracted AIDS from her dentist, may have been infected by sexual contact after ali. The author bemoans MTV's opportunism in hiring the charismatic AIDS activist Pedro Zamora to be in The Real World. And she describes white gay men across the country fending off all other demographic groups to maintain control of AIDS service agencies. In the end, everyone involved in these squabbles comes across as petty. And though Burkett is a terrific old-school muckraker, she's ultimately too bent on finding despicable or foolish agendas everywhere, seldom acknowledging honest intentions. Still, the enormous value of the questions Burkett raises about the American AIDS establishment more than makes up for her excessive venom.

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 1995
Page count: 375pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin