Ghosts of St. Vincent’s
by Tom Eubanks
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
Writing book reviews on material relating to HIV every month is tough, sometimes. There is only so much material on the subject published in the various genres, and finding quality work that adds to the conversation around the topic is my major goal. I’ve looked at more than one self-published title and have been disappointed at times. Not with this month’s selection. Ghosts of St. Vincent’s is not only an incredible read, it is an imaginative and technically proficient one. I’ve read many AIDS memoirs in my time and have had the privilege of reviewing a few but Eubank’s book turns the AIDS memoir on its head. These memoirs, while all important historical documents, can sometimes get a bit repetitive. Eubanks stakes out new and important creative territory. Is it a memoir? Is it a novel? The author willingly leaves that up to the reader.
What first caught my eye is the fabled and totemic NYC medical institution that the book centers around, St. Vincent’s Hospital. Begun as a charitable institution to serve the city’s indigent in the mid-nineteenth century by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy, the hospital became home to New York’s first AIDS Ward at the beginning of the plague. Eubanks himself spent many months on its seventh floor in the mid-nineties expecting to die until the debut of the cocktail in ’96. His memoir takes him from his earliest days in the East Village to later years in the West Village. His story is brilliantly interspersed with chapters on some extraordinary inpatients throughout the hospital’s history. It’s here that he blends history and memoir with fiction, taking delightful artistic license. We come across both the celebrated and odious of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with appearances by Robert Mapplethorpe, Ed Koch, Cardinal Spellman, and the uncle of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose middle name came from the hospital who saved her uncle’s life.
As a memoir alone, however, this is a great book. Eubanks captures perfectly the pain and loss of the period and exactly what it was like to receive the news of what was then a death sentence. He also recounts the dichotomy of being saved at the last minute by yet another pharmaceutical when you had been so let down by them already. It’s a mixed bag of emotions for some people who are long expecting to die after much suffering only to be saved at the last minute. I can’t imagine how a publisher has failed to recognize how good Ghosts of St. Vincent’s is. St. Vincent’s, like so much of its neighborhood, has now been converted into luxury housing, but this book captures its place in the history of New York adeptly and with much spirit.
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.