Tag Archives: AIDS

The Great Believers: Rebecca Makkai

“This disease has magnified all our mistakes.”

Rebecca Makkai’s splendid novel, The Great Believers moves back and forth between two timelines while exploring themes of survival, loss, and ethics. I read The Hundred Year House back in 2014. I enjoyed it, but The Great Believers is a better, richer, more mature novel.

The novel opens in 1985 Chicago. Nico, the close friend of Yale Tishman, has died of AIDS. Yale, the development director of an art gallery, and his partner, newspaper owner Charlie attend a party organized for Nico’s friends. Nico’s death was divisive. His family never accepted that Nico was gay, never accepted Nico’s gay partner, Terrence. It was only “in his last days, they’d claimed him,” and now Nico is dead, Terrence isn’t welcome at Nico’s funeral vigil, so Nico’s friends gather to remember Nico at a party.

While the party is an important event in the lives of Nico’s family and his little sister, Fiona, Yale, one of the novel’s two central characters is unaware that the party heralds an important turning point in his life. As the months pass, friends became “human dominoes,” as the disease decimates men in Yale’s social circle. In his professional life. Yale tries to secure an art collection  worth several million dollars from an elderly woman whose late husband attended Northwestern.

The elderly woman, Nora, the great-aunt of Fiona, is drawn to Yale for several reasons. Nora, who was at one point an artist, turned to modelling in post WWI Paris. She lost many artist friends to the war, and she notes the loss they represent. These were not famous artists; they died unknown–their talent lost to war.

Every time I’ve gone to a gallery, the rest of my life, I’ve thought about the works that weren’t there. Shadow-paintings, you know, that no one can see but you. But there are all these happy young people around you and you realize no, they’re not bereft. They don’t see the empty spaces.

Nora’s family don’t want her to donate the art to a university, and so they thwart Yale as much as possible. Yale treads a slippery slope in this situation: is it ethical to encourage Nora to donate her unique art collection? Is it ethical to work around the family and conceal the value of the collection? Yale becomes embroiled in a political nightmare when a prestigious donor to the university steps in to intervene. Yale walks a fine line, and it’s complicated by his slippery closet gay-boss and a new male intern.

The second storyline takes place in 2015, 30 years later. Fiona, now 51, is divorced, estranged from her only daughter and works in a resale shop. All of the young men in the gay circle which included her brother are gone. Fiona survived an epidemic, witnessed its cruel devastation first hand, and yet to most people she speaks to, AIDS is something they’ve heard about in a vague way.

Fiona had spent an inordinate amount of her adult life engaged in two different ongoing fantasies. One, especially lately, was the exercise in which she’d walk through Chicago and try to bring it back as it was in 1984, 1985. She’d start by picturing brown cars on the street. Brown cars parked nose-to-tail, mufflers falling off. Instead of the Gap, the Woolworth’s with the lunch counter, Wax Trax! Records, where the oral surgeon was now. And if she could see all that, then she could see her boys on the sidewalks in bomber jackets, calling after each other, running to cross before the light changed. She could see Nico in the distance, walking toward her.

The Great Believers captures the ignorance, the paranoia and the fear of the AIDS epidemic, conveying the atmosphere in Yale’s community of friends, many already ostracized from their families, with intensity and compassion.  Yale’s circle of friends have just begun to hear about the disease and prevention, and while the threat of contagion sparks a range of reactions, for some it’s already too late. While professionally Yale struggles with the ethics of working around Nora’s family, the plot also examines personal responsiblity to sexual partners. The novel subtly argues for a society that accepts homosexuality; the closet married gays here complicate a situation that is already marked with terrible stigma.

While this may sound like some sort of staged, preachy social awareness novel, it isn’t. Reading the novel brought back (like a slap across the face) how people treated gays as lepers, certain that breathing the same air could bring the ‘gay plague’ down on their heads.

This is a good, character-driven story. The novel goes back and forth in time, following Yale and then Fiona’s story. The two plotlines don’t quite come together–although there was a moment when I thought they might mesh. Yale’s story thread was the stronger of the two, simply because the stakes are so much higher. Yale is a marvellous character, a flawed tragic hero who never quite grasps human duplicity.

Review copy.

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The Immortalists: Chloe Benjamin

“And if there’s magic in the world, there’s magic beyond it.”

Chloe Benjamin’s novel, The Immortalists begins in 1969 with the four Gold children Varya, 13, Daniel, 11, Klara, 9, Simon, 7 who head out, pressured by Daniel to have their fortunes told by a travelling psychic. Daniel has heard that the fortune-teller can predict death dates.

The practical minded Varya asks “What is it’s bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown-up?”

“Then it would better to know, ” said Daniel. “So you could get everything done before.”

But would the knowledge of the date of your death ‘help’ or hinder you? You won’t know if the date is correct or not until it arrives. I was intrigued by the premise of the novel as many years ago I had a friend who had a similar experience. He refused to tell me the date he was given, but it haunted him. After seeing how traumatized he was by this experience, I would rather not know. Of course, we all come with a hidden expiration date, and the novel asks whether or not knowing (or thinking you know) the day of your death makes a difference as to how you choose to live your life. What if the date is wrong? How does this knowledge, true or false, impact behaviour?

In a tatty apartment building, the children are each, separately, told the day of their deaths. Although they keep the information initially secret, it impacts their behavior in the years to come.

the immortalists

Simon Gold as a teenager who is facing joining the family’s “Tailor and Dressmaking”  business, instead opts to run off to the heady freedom of San Francisco in the late 70s-early 80s. There, underage Simon finds work as a dancer in a gay bar, and he meets an older man. Meanwhile his sister Klara who runs off to San Francisco with Simon gets a job as temp. while dreaming of becoming an illusionist. Klara turns to magic in a dangerous and obsessive attempt to cross the barriers between the living  and the dead.

The second brother Daniel, quiet, steady and serious becomes an army doctor post 9-11 and Varya becomes a scientist whose area of expertise/interest is longevity research. (This involves Rhesus monkeys, so reader beware). In her longevity research, quantity becomes more important than quality.

The Immortalists, beginning with Simon, follows the siblings on their life paths. Each sibling keeps the death date in his/her head, always conscious of it, even if they disbelieve it. Simon, who is told that he will die young, certainly takes this information and runs with it. Hurls himself towards it might even be a better description.

What if the woman on Hester Street is right, and the next few years are his last? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.

I liked the novel’s premise and the mystical elements, and I loved Klara and Varya’s stories, possibly because they tried to understand life in alternate ways. Daniel’s section stretched credulity, and readers should be aware that in Simon’s story, there’s a considerable amount of sex. This is described rather clinically, not salaciously, but still, anyone intending to read this should know what they are in for. IMO, it added nothing to the book. That’s not meant in a puritanical way, but these scenes did nothing for me whatsoever, and seemed, frankly, rather gratuitous.

The Immortalists asks how much we really control our lives. Would the Gold children have acted differently if they’d never met the fortune-teller? If you were told you were going to die young, would you dive right into life and to hell with the consequences or would you try to avoid disaster? Character is fate, right? Can you escape fate? We see each of the Gold children tackle those questions differently.

If you like The Immortalists, you will probably also like Daniel Kehlmann’s F  (or vice versa)

Review copy

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Take Me to Paris, Johnny: John Foster

“He was like an exotic bird, the only one of his kind.”

The title of John Foster’s memoir, Take me to Paris, Johnny, is emblematic of the character and life of Juan Céspedes, the author’s lover until Juan’s death from AIDS in 1987. The two men met in New York in 1981 when John, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, travelled to America to research a book.

take-me-to-paris-johnny

The memoir begins when John Foster travels to Guantánamo to visit Juan’s family. The visit which took place a year after Juan’s death should have been the end of Juan’s story, but in Foster’s hands, it becomes the graceful introduction.  It’s a moving, powerful beginning: travelling to a beautiful foreign country of “red earth, banana plantations and hills that were crowned with a darker canopy of royal palms,” eventually to arrive at a landscape that has a “desolate air; it was brown, scarred and smudged with a confusion of railway marshalling yards. The end of the line.”

Deeply interested in dance and loathe to follow his state assigned career, Juan struggled under Cuban culture in which individualism was not encouraged, and like other young friends, Juan “more charmed than ever by the forbidden music from the radio station ar the base,” decided to seek political asylum by escaping to the US naval base at Guantánamo. And it was in this fashion that Juan finally  landed at age 15 in Hell’s Kitchen in 1969 “where the Catholic agency had installed its Cuban refugees in a cheap apartment house.”

The other residents, according to Juan ‘s calculation, consisted of 25 per cent ex-cons, 25 per cent drag queens and 50 percent addicts.

From 1969 until 1981, when Juan met John Foster, Juan’s history is patchy but involved attempts at establishing a professional dance career and a series of patrons–including a priest, but the relationships ended perhaps because Juan’s “tastes [were] too expensive or his occasional tantrums too exhausting.” Juan carefully constructed narratives around these relationships:

They each occupied a space in his memory, and he referred to them habitually, and most fondly, as if they were a line of popes or kings in whose reign an event could be located. That was the way he ordered his memories, very tidily, in much the same way that he arranged his life, in little compartments, so that there would be no unnecessary confusion or unpleasantness

Foster met Juan when the latter was homeless, and a one-night stand morphed into a long-distance relationship. Finally Juan, already ill with various mysterious ailments, moved to Australia where his tenuous residency teetered on a bureaucratic foundation. Some of the details regarding the illness were difficult to read, but Foster powerfully brings home the times and the fears. I’ll mention the Grim Reaper ad here and luckily and coincidentally I saw it recently on an Australian television programme. I’m glad I saw it as I wouldn’t have understood Foster’s reactions to the ad; it’s one of those things you have to see for yourself.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny is Juan’s story, as the author intended, but ultimately it’s the story of a relationship. We see Juan through the eyes of Foster: an exotic figure with a taste for drama, engaging, entertaining, a man whose very existence defies his humble hard-scrabble beginnings.

We walked home, stopping off at the corner store to buy a bottle of Lucozade. According to the label  Beecham Bros supplied this energizing drink by appointment to HM the Queen, which Juan imagined she probably swigged in large quantities to fortify her in her battles with Mrs Thatcher.

While Foster remains in the background, refusing to assign blame or guilt to Juan, their relationship most effectively holds a mirror up to reflect back Foster’s character to the reader. Author John Foster wanted to create a story that transcended death and decay (the afterword by John Rickard goes into some explanation on this issue), and it’s through this afterword that Foster’s character shines through. He was a remarkable human being–full of love, tenderness and grace.

Review copy

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The Fall of Princes: Robert Goolrick

I couldn’t pass up Robert Goolrick’s The Fall of Princes, the story of a former BSD (“big, swinging dick“) trader from Wall Street who soared the heights in the 80s only to plummet to the lows of working in Barnes and Noble. This is his story, and this long, detailed mea culpa AA/NA style confession of a louse’s fall from the pinnacle of success, a story of excess, sex, and drugs, is morbidly fascinating. And I’ll note here that Goolrick, to his credit, approaches his material with restraint, not crudity, unlike The Wolf of Wall Street, so while we read about lines of cocaine and hordes of bedmates, throughout the tale there’s the sense that these young traders, running out of speed, are damaging themselves more than anyone else. The mayhem carries a heavy cost from the outset and doesn’t look like a great deal of decadent fun.

fall of princesThe chapters alternate between the narrator, using the collective ‘we,’ who tells the story of the aggressive, young bull trader lifestyle and the first person narrator who recalls specific incidents.  The narrator lands a job at ‘the Firm,’ where clients “had to have $20 million” in their accounts “at all times. That’s a lot of toys to play with,” and these young traders repeat the words “forty or forty.”

That’s when you retire, they reply with that bland smile. When you reach the age of forty, or your portfolio reaches forty million. That’s when you can get away clean and get your life back. What’s left of it

It’s an adrenaline-fueled life where sleep is a low priority, and rowdy nights are spent drinking, taking drugs, and bedding nameless women. Then when the narrator runs out of steam, he periodically boomerangs to rehab. There’s also a brutal competitiveness amongst the traders which begins with the bodies most of them develop.

Thousands of hours in the world’s most expensive gym, with the world’s most skilled trainers, had brought my body to such a state of perfection that the women who rushed to take off their clothes in my bedroom could only gasp at the luck that had put them into my line of sight, that had made them, even for one night, the most beautiful creatures on earth, with their lithe arms and their skin like chamois and their scents.

The narrator, occasionally referred to by the name Rooney, started out his trader life after various failures as a bad artist and a bad writer, but then turns to trading when he decides that he does not want to end up as one of the “gray masses.”

the place they would end up, neither richer or wiser, filled only with regret and second-tier liquor and the shreds of the dreams they no longer remembered, surprised to wake up one day and be shown the door with a tepid handshake and a future on the edge of old age and death that held only pictures of the kids and grandkids, a cruise to some out-of-season destination every three years, and the notion, which they somehow managed to believe, that this was comfort, that this was all the splendor they got for forty years of relentless drudgery and obsequiousness.

And to all this we said fuck you, we want it all, we want it now, you can drain us of our blood for all we care, but we want impossible things of impossible vintage and provenance. We want salaries equivalent to our ages multiplied by 100,000. We want to live life in a rush of fury and light, to rampage, to pillage our neighbourhoods and rape and demolish our best and closest friends

The collective ‘we’ sections, which at times felt like a Greek chorus describing the ebb and flow of money easily gained and easily lost, are not as powerful as the details of Rooney’s golden life before he ran out of steam just as AIDS swept through his world. There’s a no expense spared summer in the Hamptons … $200,000, a weekend in L.A. … $50,000, and, of course, a bachelor weekend in Vegas. While Rooney bedded and dumped countless women, he finally marries one very high-maintenance woman named Carmela, and he describes their turbulent, short relationship not “so much a marriage as it was like a long, drunken date.”

At times Rooney apologizes for the person he used to be. Sometimes the apology sounds sincere and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s impossible to tell where the remorse ends and the self-pity begins;

Forgive me for thinking that I was better than you will ever be. Forgive me for thinking that money equaled a kind of moral superiority

Rooney picks at the most shameful moments in his life–scabs that won’t heal. There’s one moment when he recalls a game he used to play with his hard-drinking workmates called “To Have and To have Not.”

The idea was you had to think of something you had done that nobody else at the table had done, or something you had never done that everybody else had done.

As the evenings wear on, “the vagaries of human behaviour” are revealed and then Rooney reveals that a girl killed herself when he dumped her. While he mulls over how heartlessly he treated her, a great deal of the regret seems to dwell in the self-pity Rooney wallows in. There’s also the sense that he’d be the same person again in a heartbeat if he got the chance, and we see that aspect of his character in the way Rooney, now in his 50s, dresses in the last of his expensive clothing and spends his days off using  a false name and address and masquerading as a high-flying apartment seeker.

People’s relationship with money is fascinating. Note the films stars who’ve earned millions only to declare bankruptcy, lose homes, or commit suicide when faced with financial disaster and a late life lack of earning power. Money works most of us, not the other way around, and people go the grave never understanding just how finances, and such tedious but necessary things as budgets, work. Of course I was fascinated to read this ‘rise and fall’ tale of a trader–surely, you’d think, someone who would understand money but who ultimately didn’t. All those millions that passed through his hands must have given him some sort of contact high. No authors handle the subject of excess better than Americans, IMO, and it shows here. Yet Goolrick takes the high road when describing the high roller lifestyle rather than sinking to titillation.

(Finally,  I couldn’t help wondering if anyone could survive in NY on Barnes and Nobles wages and save for a foreign trip every year.)

Review copy

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Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon by Sue Tilley

If Leigh came to your house and saw something he didn’t like he would throw it out the window.”

I stumbled upon some photos of Leigh Bowery by pure accident, and I immediately knew that this Australian avant-garde performance artist/club promoter/costume designer was heavily influenced by Divine and John Waters. I then came across a bio of Bowery written by his long-time friend, Sue Tilley, so I decided to read it and discover whether or not the Divine-Leigh Bowery connection existed. And to break the suspense, yes, Bowery was influenced by Divine and John Waters, so for fans of Trash Cinema, or for those who appreciate Bad Taste, this book is an interesting read which further endorses Waters’ influence outside of Baltimore. Yes people, he’s polluting the whole planet!

But back to Leigh Bowery….

Bowery was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and died of AIDS in 1994. This disease stripped the world of so many talented people. Freddie Mercury comes to mind, and Leigh Bowery was yet another immensely talented individual who could have accomplished so much more if he’d had the time.

This brutally honest, and sometimes raw, memoir is written by Leigh’s close friend, Sue Tilley. Tilley was on the scene when 19-year-old Leigh, armed with a portable sewing machine, moved from Melbourne, Australia to London in 1980. Leigh was seeking glamour, excitement, and a “career in design”  and he found all these things–although not instantly–in the London club scene by way of  a detour at Burger King. Tilley describes the influences on Leigh’s attitudes, including Divine: “the brilliant drag actor and singer, who was to be a great influence for the rest of his life.”

An exceptional aspect of the memoir is Tilley’s no-holds barred look at  Leigh Bowery. They were best friends, and clearly Sue has a strong attachment to this larger-than-life Australian, but at no point does Tilley sugar-coat her view. We see the positive: his creativity, his humour and his zest for life, and the negative: stealing from Burger King, shoplifting, and the treatment of his ‘slaves’.

Tilley describes the various fashion trends:New Romantics, Hard Times, & Glam as well as numerous notables from the 80s London club scene, including Scarlett Bordello and Steve Strange. The club scene at White Trash, ChaChas, Heaven and Asylum is detailed, and Leigh was such a natural presence at the clubs that he was approached by club entrepreneur Tony Gordon to be “the public face” of a club which opened in 1985. The club was named Taboo “because it epitomized everything Leigh loved.” The club doorman, Mark Vaultier, would hold a mirror in front of the faces of would–be club entrants and ask: “Would you let yourself in?”

To quote an article from Alix Sharkey, Taboo was :

London’s sleaziest, campest and bitchiest club of the moment which is stuffed with designers, stylists, models, students, dregs and the hopefully hip, lurching through the lasers and snarfing up amyl. The coolest geezer in here is wearing Bodymap tights and, yup, platform soles. A sudden rush for the toilets could only mean that a camera crew had arrived and were filming, nothing less would penetrate this narcissistic air of self-absorption.

The book is not strictly chronological, and some of it is organised thematically (Home, Dance, Art, Hospital), and the result is a well-considered blend of the personal and the professional–including Leigh’s cottaging exploits and his favourite public toilets. When it came to sex, he preferred toilets to homes:

Very occasionally Leigh would go back to men’s houses but he never really enjoyed it–it just confirmed the dreariness of most people’s lives and their complete lack of taste in home furnishings.

Leigh comes to life in anecdotes–one example is the way he told such outrageous lies that no one knew whether or not he was telling the truth:

Typically, Leigh would tell the most heinous lies. He once told me that Brad Branson, an American photographer who I knew in passing, had been on holiday in Ibiza, caught a terrible tropical disease and dropped dead. I was very shocked at this because it seemed such a strange thing to happen. A couple of weeks later, I was sitting in my little cashier’s booth at Industria and then suddenly Brad Branson came down the stairs. I nearly jumped out of my skin and screeched ‘I thought you were dead.’ I still don’t know why I believed the story because after ten years I should have realised what a liar Leigh was but I didn’t think that even he could make up stories that bad.

Leigh’s playfulness and transgressive sense of humour seep through the pages, and for this reader at least, reading the book, gave a clear sense of knowing this adventurous character:

When Leigh was asked by somebody on what occasions he lied, he replied, ‘On what occasions do I breathe!’ At least he was honest that once. Because Leigh told such terrible lies, sometimes people didn’t believe the truth. He once told Cerith that Les Child was working in the gay sauna in Covent Garden making sandwiches for the snack bar. Cerith couldn’t believe that as talented a dancer as Les would be doing such a job. So when he bumped into Les several months later and asked him how things were going he was completely gobsmacked when he replied ‘Fine, girl, I’m not making the sandwiches any more.’

So even when Leigh told the truth, the truth had a strangely comic result….Obviously for author Sue Tilley, the creator of this touching, tragic and funny memoir,  it’s impossible to forget Leigh Bowery. He was … simply … one of a kind.

For images of Leigh and his work, here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hASjFX7CVsQ

Review copy read on my kindle courtesy of Open Road media via Netgalley

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A Matter of Life and Sex by Oscar Moore

“It was the memory of a pause.”

There’s a seedy, twilight world that runs parallel to our cosy, safe terrain. One false move, one wrong turn, and we leave our safe, familiar world behind and enter this dangerous, dark underworld. Once the first step is taken, there is no turning back.

Hugo is 14 years old when he takes that step. He is the only son of a horrifically cold, neurotic and frequently violent woman. His stepfather is a mild man who is content to linger in the background. Hugo is already seriously damaged when he enters his teens. He cannot feel emotion, and has removed himself far from emotional pain. He’s attracted to members of the same sex, and has a definite curiosity, when he accidentally stumbles into the world of “24 hour tango” which takes place at a local public toilet.

From silent, sometimes brutal, encounters with strangers, and seductions that begin with a single, hungry look, Hugo slides into pornography, prostitution and drug abuse. In the beginning, Hugo is able to separate himself from his actions by creating a suave, tougher alter ego, David. It is as though David–not Hugo–experiences the searing often degrading encounters in the public toilets, but as Hugo matures, he drops this persona, and instead, we encounter, Hugo–intelligent, handsome, and yet completely and utterly soulless.

“A Matter of Life and Sex” is one man’s journey to hell. This book is an unrelenting, searing, graphic, brutal read. Many of the details of Hugo’s life will be too much for some readers; however, the details are not salacious. Every word was necessary in this brilliant, stunning novel. The protagonist Hugo doesn’t possess any characteristics that make him particularly likeable, but he’s not despicable either. He’s hollow–not shallow–and he feels “no need to develop a conscience” so he never experiences any moral barriers to his behaviour. Author Oscar Moore creates a character who is basically a living, breathing blank–and in this devastatingly honest novel, there is nowhere for the main character to hide. From Hugo’s days as a confused schoolboy vaguely bothered by his lack of attraction to girls, his college days supporting himself as a male prostitute, to his final catharsis in New York, Hugo lacks the refuge of recriminations, remorse, or even doubt. Hugo dreams of being a street tough and laces his imagination with images of how he’d like to be, but he remains a symptom and a victim of the dark culture he flounders in. Tragically, just as Hugo begins to reclaim his life, the consequences of his past sweep over him. “A Matter of Life and Sex” is a blistering record of the world awakening to the presence of AIDS, and this book remains one of the best books I’ve read this year. Author Oscar Moore left us just this one novel before his tragic death.

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