The Other Passover
by Joseph F. Delgado
Ediciones El Laberinto/USA Distributor: Amazon.com
Reviewed by Hank Trout
The setting is now, the present. A mysterious disease nearly blankets the Southeast region of the United States. Its victims become extremely sick very quickly——fine one moment, collapsed the next, with dizziness, nausea, the loss of muscular control, blurry vision, deafness, and a bizarre form of hypothermia that, even in the heat of the Southeast, lowers body temperatures to the 60s Fahrenheit and kills most of the men afflicted.
Eventually, two-thirds of the men in the region become ill with the unexplained, inexplicable disease. Most of them die.
Only men are afflicted.
Only straight men.
Such is the premise of Joseph F. Delgado’s new short novel, The Other Passover, a work of speculative fiction that imagines a different, post-AIDS plague ravaging the straight male population of the American Southeast.
The parallels with the AIDS pandemic, and even the COVID-19 pandemic, are obvious—a never-before-seen disease appears (deus ex machina?), baffling medical practitioners and researchers; patients exhibit bizarre, unexplained symptoms (hypothermia in Atlanta? frostbite?); the symptoms in each patient mimic the symptoms in every other patient; most patients die; the ones who survive have lost toes, their voices, their hearing, the use of the right side of their body, their ability to function on their own as adults.
The reaction of the public is the same fear and ostracism that greeted HIV and COVID-19. Snake-oil salesmen peddle ridiculous “cures”; patients begin drinking poisonous substances, inhaling paint thinner, injecting bleach (where have we heard that recently?). And the government health agencies? Run by inexperienced political appointee hacks instead of scientists. Companies begin discriminating against straight men (hire a straight guy? who’s gonna die in a short time? Pfft!). Straight men attempt to “turn gay” to protect themselves from whatever is killing straight men. The Southeast becomes a gay enclave, as gay men swarm the area to replace all the dead straight men.
That’s a lot to happen in 180 pages. The novel suffers from its brevity. If you’re going to write speculative fiction, you must create an entire plausible world—I’m thinking of Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, or some of the stories in Philip Dean Walker’s At Danceteria and Other Stories. We meet several couples in Delgado’s novel, couples where the man becomes afflicted and the woman deals, in varying ways, with the situation. But these characters are given so little time, so little development, that they do not come alive.
The one exception is the Italian couple, Ettore and Lucia, whose son Gino contracts but survives the strange disease. For me, these characters are the most fully sketched, the most lifelike. Their passion for their son, their confusion about the disease, their undying faith that all will be well, all feel very real. I applaud Delgado for fully drawing these characters—their story, their lives, are the most believable for me.
Writing speculative fiction is incredibly difficult. Asking “What if?” in any fictional circumstance opens myriad possibilities. I wish Delgado had taken more time to explore those possibilities, filled more pages, fleshed out all of these characters. His premise and reverse-history story—a disease that afflicts only straight men—deserve more time, more pages, more details. What I’ve read is a good start.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.