by John Whittier Treat
Reviewed by Chael Needle
In the mid-eighties, 1985 or 1986, but perhaps slightly earlier, my brother Doug’s friend Glenn traveled to Syracuse from San Diego, where they had met and enjoyed a friendship as sunny as a New Wave song, to visit. It was a goodbye. Glenn had been ill, was ill. AIDS. I wish I knew more about Glenn, but I never met him. Doug introduced him to other (older) siblings, but kept me away. He has never said so but I believe he was trying to protect me from seeing my possible end, or perhaps his own, though neither of us was positive.
I am grateful my brother felt such concern for me, but he could’t filter out what men who loved men at the time knew. Death was no doubt arriving early. Most of us had to confront our possible ends, even as we tried to continue on with our lives, our traditions.
That’s what the characters of John Whittier Treat’s novella, Maid Service, are trying to do—carry on with their lives, carry on with traditions, like heading out to Provincetown for summer fun.
It’s 1987 and Bill has flown in to Boston from the West Coast to stay with his friend and grad school rommate David for a few days before they make the journey from Back Bay out to the end of Cape Cod. The friendship is as jet-lagged as Bill, but it is soon revived, thanks to the appearance of another friend and Harvard classmate Philip, who lives with David in the basement half, and Lou, who probably likes to think of himself as the most acerbic of the bunch and arguably is.
On Bill’s first night, they trade barbs over Chinese takeout, and later they trade barbs over breakfast, over road-trip coffee, over cocktails. They are carrying on traditions, “hurling the insults that constitue gay friendship,” but also bearing witness to each other’s pain even if they sometimes cause it. Nothing that dramatic happens, but then again nothing that dramatic happens in the eye of a storm, either. AIDS is there but not there, seemingly a tangent that merely touches this circle of friends but in reality dissecting it. Only George, who works as David’s maid and whom the reader meets fleetingly in Boston and P-town, is direct about his own failing health and his hope to live.
With impeccable prose, Treat writes spare scenes and uses them to great effect: the simple present is laden with the weight of the past and the weight of the future. The novella explores numerous themes: friends as chosen family, the distance one thinks one can put between oneself and AIDS, and class differences, among others. The dialogue is razor-sharp; the insights well-earned. All in all, it’s too short—but I imagine that is one of Treat’s points. So many of the lives of gay men had only just begun, and then they faced the end.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.