The Soho Press Book of 80s Short Fiction
Edited by Dale Peck
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
The eighties were a decade that began twelve straight years of conservative power in the White House. It was often said at the time that during such a conservative era of power, counterculture thrives, nowhere moreso than in the arts. This collection of short fiction illustrates that theory beautifully with a culturally, ethnically, sexually diverse group of authors across gender. Yes, the Reagan-fueled yuppie excesses of greed and affluence are represented here. Bret Easton Ellis’s testosterone-ridden, misogynistic, gay-bashing contribution to the anthology, a violent Eighties vampire tale, fits that bill perfectly. Yes, he represents the heterocentric voice of the times (despite eventually coming out himself), but his problem is that he still does. One can just imagine which lever he pulled in this past election.
But this is a balanced anthology. The stories are curated beautifully by Peck beginning with its author’s recollections of their childhoods in the sixties and moving through their formative years in the seventies and eighties as young adults. And there’s one national theme at play that touches these pieces both directly and indirectly, and that’s the AIDS pandemic. So many of the pieces deal with sexuality, and not a few of them addiction, that its presence starts out subtly and grows as the decade morphs into the end of the Bush, Sr. Administration in ’92. Gary Indiana writes of the “gay” seventies in the sexually frank “Sodomy,” always referring to events as “before the war.” The writer Laurie Weeks describes a young woman whose body is being colonized by disease in “Debbie’s Barium Swallow.” She exemplifies how short stories, as a device, give an author license to experiment on the page unfettered by the structure of the novel. The gay writer David Wojnarowicz writes of a post-apocalyptic New York in “Spiral.” Its protagonist alternates between visiting a dying friend in the AIDS ward of a hospital and haunting the literally underground gay sex clubs of the city where the men carry on as if the virus that’s killing their brethren had never existed. The last story of the collection, “A Good Man,” is more of a traditional narrative. The heart-wrenching piece describes a gay woman’s vigil by the bedside of her best friend during an extended stay in the hospital due to complications stemming from AIDS.
Perhaps most importantly, this collection documents the work of three authors we lost far to soon due to AIDS, Gil Cuadros, Essex Hemphill, and Sam D’allesandro. This is a thoughtful, provocative, and important anthology highlighting a seminal decade in the written arts. The author Dale Peck, its editor, has chosen each piece with care and much discernment.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.