In Visions and Revisions, Dale Peck revisits a landscape he often returns to in his writing: the AIDS-induced wasteland of New York City in the 1980s and ‘90s. Collating the material was an intensely personal journey, Peck explains; the book is stitched together from his essays, articles, letters, and journal entries. It forced him to confront the particular ways in which he evoked past experiences, to reconcile the version of himself he remembers with those he captured on paper–suspended in stasis–over the decades.
“You kind of forget how many people you knew who died,” Peck reflects. “How weird it was. How very scared you were all the time and yet, at the same time, because of the activism, how empowered. I’ve never felt as empowered in my life as I did in those first few years in the city.”
An early member of ACT UP, Peck spent years of his life fighting—fighting for government recognition of a disease killing off his friends and lovers, fighting for safe sex, fighting for funding for medical research, fighting for the lives of those too weak to fight for themselves. And during that time, he learned righteous anger at the feet of an incomparable master: Larry Kramer.
“People talk about me being angry,” Peck says with a wan smile, referring to his reputation as a scathing and belligerent critic, “but I think it's just a shadow of the anger that I've witnessed come from Larry Kramer's lips and pen.”
At one point renowned for his prickliness, Peck’s demeanor has softened. Society has grown to accept, if not embrace, its gay population, and the urgency and anger that once characterized his life have dissipated. The release of protease inhibitors in 1996 marked an inestimable change in the way people, himself included, perceived AIDS—no longer a death sentence, it became a manageable chronic illness. “I understand why people aren't as worked up [anymore],” he admits of the continuing AIDS crisis. “I'm not as worked up about it.”
An undeniable dimension to that shift in perception was the changing nature of the fight. “It’s become very bureaucratic now,” he says, “and that’s not exciting. It’s not photogenic, it’s not the kind of thing you write big novels about.” As the utility of protests and demonstrations faded, the collective anger dissipated. Kramer, whose health is now deteriorating, lamented in a recent interview with The Advocate that no one has yet arisen to take up the mantle from him when he dies.
“I mean, the man has survived death so many times that I will not believe he's going to die until I'm actually at his funeral,” Peck begins. “But when he goes, it will be an irreplaceable loss. He was Larry Kramer. He was the angel and the devil on your shoulder combined into one. There is only one Larry and there could only ever be one Larry. I think on some level he's not bothered that no one will step in to fill his shoes, because I think on some level he likes being unique. But I don't actually know that we need another American Larry Kramer,” he continues, commenting on the fact that the final frontier for this disease has shifted to the developing world. “I think we need an African Larry Kramer—or 20 African Larry Kramers—an Indian Larry Kramer, probably a Chinese Larry Kramer, but the statistics aren't there. Larry did what was needed, and I think he should just be so inordinately proud of that. The fact that they haven't invented the Nobel Prize for whatever they want to give to him…I think is just sad.”
Peck says that change in 1996 was like “night and day.” For many (Kramer being a noted exception), the impulse was to build a wall, to try to forget the suffering and the fear and return to life. “Those were the people, and I count myself among them, who would have communicated this message [the history of HIV/AIDS] in a personal way [to the next generation].” But the veterans were unwilling to speak of their experiences, which is partly why young people know so little about the fight that consumed so many.
Peck’s life’s work has been to keep the memory of that time alive. While never seeking to be comprehensive in his retelling of the story of the epidemic, he’s continued to play the part he chose for himself. “I sort of told myself that I would never stop writing about AIDS,” he says simply, “and I never have.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.