Illuminations on Market Street
Benjamin Heim Shepard
Reviewed by Alina Oswald
In many ways, Illuminations on Market Street is, as its subtitle suggests, (a story about sex and estrangement, AIDS and loss, and other preoccupations in San Francisco). A finalist in the 2017 William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, Illuminations on Market Street is a first novel by Brooklyn-based activist Benjamin Heim Shepard, whose other books include White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic (1997) and From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (2002). Illuminations on Market Street captures a unique portrait of the AIDS epidemic at its height during the early nineties, in San Francisco, as seen through the eyes of a young, straight, HIV-negative man. Born and raised in the South, Cab Callaway Hardy is a recent college graduate and journalist living in San Francisco and working the graveyard shift at an AIDS residence. He’s desperately trying to make sense of his life, while in the middle of a recession, dealing with the AIDS-related deaths, loss and suffering surrounding him. In the process, he confronts memories from his childhood, and a present marked by unsuccessful love relationships with women; and dares to dream of a more hopeful future.
Considered by author Tim Murphy a “deeply-moving, a rough-around-the-edges memory novel of early-nineties San Francisco,” and, by Cleve Jones, “a fantastic read that everyone can enjoy,” Illuminations on Market Street weaves together personal narratives of those living with the virus and of those witnessing the epidemic of that time in a story about AIDS and related activism, politics, culture, suffering, and loss. It is also a story about the importance of remembering the dead, as well as celebrating the living, about hope and searching for true love as well as for one’s truth. Through it all, hope is never lost. The life-saving medications introduced in the mid-nineties have a Lazarus effect not only on those living with the virus, but in a strange way, on Cab’s life, too. As readers, we also get to experience that transformation ourselves.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.