The American People Volume 1: Search for My Heart
by Larry Kramer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecently, I’ve been on something of a search. A search for recently published work that addresses the HIV/AIDS crisis in print. I often check on some of my favorite gay authors both out of my own interest and to this end. Published last year, the long-awaited, much talked about new novel by Larry Kramer was published and completely flew under my radar. I believe one thing strongly—not only is Kramer a brilliant author and playwright, he is truly an American hero. He’s never been afraid of saying what’s hard for people to hear, often to his own detriment. And he can have the satisfaction of knowing how important his stance was because, while difficult and hardly wished for, it has so often been proven right.
As I said, there’s been a lot of talk about the “theories” presented in this work. He not only floats the idea that more than a few of our most beloved presidents were gay, but he also presents some far-reaching theories about the origins of the disease. But, to dwell on those as fact or plausible theory is to miss the point entirely. He presents us with a work of fiction. A radical revision of what we know as American history. History by nature is sometimes a game of filling in the blanks after all, and if it could have happened, who’s to say it didn’t?
This book, while brilliant, is not an easy read by a long shot. It covers a period of hundreds of years and is told through the eyes of many narrators, one of them the virus itself. Another narrator is Fred Lemish, who we remember from Kramer’s novel of New York gay life in the seventies, Faggots. He is busy at work trying to compile this hidden history of gay life in America and trying to get to the bottom of where and how the virus took hold. He’s trying to make sense of so much loss.
The American People gives one a lot to think about. What did it mean to have sex with other men far in our past? It certainly didn’t look like it does today. There was no gay identity per se, but it still was a fact of life. It certainly must have had a share in shaping our past as Kramer’s story of the first Puritan colonies makes clear. What do isolated groups of “straight” and “gay” men do when there are no women available for extended periods of time? Do they seek the company and comfort that can be found between two men? If George Washington or Abraham Lincoln were gay it would have been a private matter. You’d hardly find them bellying up to the bar at Sunday tea cruising for their next conquest. And AIDS came from somewhere, maybe far in the past. In a time where there was practically no knowledge as to the cause and course of a disease, much less a virus, could an unusual amount of fatalities have been simply written off or attributed to something else?
The novel also takes a long, hard look at how the disease may have originated. Initially transmitted through monkeys eating each other, it takes its biggest strides among humans, via sex. While it may be easy to discount the fact that people were as sexually licentious hundreds of years ago as they are now, Kramer takes a different view. He writes of secret places off in the woods and fields where likeminded men met for sex, our earliest cruising spots. In the nineteenth century and moving forward men congregate in secret clubs often in bars and bordellos. Sex is there if you look for it and so is the nascent virus, secretly spreading and going on to kill. An early aphrodisiac is discovered that drives its victims to literally fuck themselves to death. All in all gay life in the seventies begins to look like nothing new at all.
This novel is definitely fascinating. In revising what we know about our history, it paints a compelling picture. It takes great license with history but is really only proposing things that we can’t entirely discount. Truth, in this case, is irrelevant; we are reading a novel. It also does what Larry Kramer has done throughout his storied career—it asks questions. Perhaps in time some of the answers he provides here will prove to have weight. The man has been right before.
John Francis Leonard writes A&U’s monthly Bright Lights, Small City column.