Body Counts: Review

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Body Counts
A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival
by Sean Strub
Simon & Schuster

Reviewed by Larry Buhl

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Even those intimately familiar with the darkest days of the AIDS crisis might not know Sean Strub. Diagnosed with HIV in 1985, Strub protested with ACT UP at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and and was part of the group that covered Sen. Jesse Helms’ house with a giant condom. He was the first openly HIV-positive man to run for Congress. He started POZ magazine and founded the Sero Project, an organization dedicated to decriminalizing HIV/AIDS.All the while Strub was taking names and taking notes.

Part personal struggle with AIDS, part chronicle of early public policy fights, Sean Strub’s Body Counts ensures that we never forget that frightening and infuriating time and who we should still blame. Comparisons will be made to Paul Monette’s personal, tear-jerking Borrowed Time or the fury-stoking documentary film, How to Survive a Plague. But Strub is more interested in a dispassionate and objective travelogue of the terrain of AIDS, death, inaction, and medical revolution in the trenches of the first decade of the crisis.

There are takedowns of the usual suspects—Ronald Reagan, Anthony Fauci, NIH, Jesse Helms and closeted Washington insiders—as well as a bit of gratuitous name dropping of Strub’s celebrity friends like Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. Strub devotes a considerable amount of time on direct mail and donor appeals for fundraising campaigns. That’s more interesting than it sounds, because Strub wraps up the nuts and bolts of campaigns in the frustration of engaging those who could do a lot to help but fear sticking their necks out and jeopardizing their image.

If Strub’s account lacks immediacy and passion it’s only because he’s writing from a perspective two decades after the height of AIDS activism. Still, Body Counts is an important perspective to add to the canon of literature documenting the Plague Years.

Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. His young adult novel, The Genius of Little Things, debuted last year.