A Survivor’s Story
A&U’s Hank Trout interviews Brian Malloy about his new novel about an AIDS widower, After Francesco

When we think of “long-term HIV/AIDS survivors,” we usually think of those of us who were diagnosed with HIV early in the pandemic, before the 1996 advent of HAART, who managed to survive and are still alive. However, there walk among us hundreds of thousands of HIV-negative people—our husbands, lovers, families, friends, caregivers, and more—who lived through those indescribably horrible early years of the pandemic, who experienced the same fears, confusion, governmental indifference, anger, grief, and losses that we HIV-positive folks experienced. They are survivors, too. Their stories, though rarely told, are every bit as gripping, as compelling, and as important as any PLHIV’s stories.

Fortunately, acclaimed author Brian Malloy has given us one such survivor’s story with his latest novel, After Francesco (Kensington Books), a very moving, poignant, sometimes funny, sometimes gasp-inducingly shocking novel about love, loss, recovery, redemption, and moving on. It is an achingly beautiful portrait of a man driven to the depths of despair (and the bottom of many vodka bottles) by the loss of his partner to AIDS.

We meet Kevin Doyle in 1988, in New York City, two years after the death of his partner Francesco, a meticulous comic book artist. Kevin is still grieving, and trying to drown that grief in vodka. After the second time Kevin lands in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning, and after losing his job and receiving an eviction notice, his friends are frankly fed up with him. With their encouragement, Kevin returns to Minneapolis, his hometown, to stay with his crusty but soft-hearted Aunt Nora. He reconnects with a high school buddy and other friends and, with the help of a support group for “AIDS widowers” and other friends, slowly begins rebuilding his life and relationships. After a shocking family betrayal (Francesco’s sister-in-law is heartlessly cruel), the impending death of his best friend calls him back to New York. As he settles into a job at GMHC, becomes active in ACT UP, and opens up to a relationship with a new love, we leave the novel hopeful, if not fully certain, that Kevin will continue build and grow into a new post-Francesco life.

Author Brian Malloy is an activist and an award-winning writer of four novels (winning the ALA Alex Award and the Minnesota Book Award) who earned his MFA at the University of Minnesota and currently teaches creative writing. In the 1980s, Brian worked for the Minnesota AIDS Project and helped organize the state’s first AIDS Walk in 1988; in the 1990s he founded the Minnesota Lesbian and Gay Community Funding Partnership. He lives in Minneapolis—as the author’s blurb in the book puts it—“with his husband and their rescue mutts.”

A&U corresponded with author Malloy for this article.

Photo courtesy Brian Malloy

Hank Trout: Another writer has said that every work of AIDS-related fiction to come out over the last three decades or so has been at least partially autobiographical. Is that true of After Francesco? That is, are there any of Kevin’s or other characters’ experiences that you have also had?
Brian Malloy: I think the autobiographical element in these novels used to be the case, mostly because the only novelists interested in writing about AIDS were gay men who had personal experience with the disease (many were living with HIV/AIDS), or African writers like Zambian novelist Mubanga Kalimamukwento, who lost her parents to the disease. But now there are books like The Great Believers and We Are Lost and Found which do not have any autobiographical elements.

It’s important for those of us who remain to write down our experiences so our voices are included in the history that we lived. Otherwise we are left with a redacted history, or an imagined history, such as in 2016 when Hillary Clinton praised the Reagans for speaking out on AIDS when no one else would, thus beginning the “national conversation” about the disease. Seriously, I’m a fiction writer, and I can’t make this stuff up.

Kevin and I had many similar experiences: volunteering, caregiving, activism, heartbreak, and rage. In the 1980s I worked at the Minnesota AIDS Project, and was a caregiver for my roommate, who died in our home in 1991, ten years after the first CDC report. So, yes, some of the events in After Francesco are autobiographical, others I witnessed, and others I created based on contemporary accounts of real events by the people who participated in them, like ACT UP’s takeover of the FDA (I was not at that action).

I remember that as the pandemic was getting worse and worse, and we suffered so many losses, many of the people around us were full of well-meaning but useless advice about grieving and healing. I was impressed with Kevin’s ability to tune out the useless advice and to recognize that we all grieve and heal in our own ways. But Kevin’s “own way” turns very dark and self-destructive. What factors in Kevin’s life pushed him down that dark path? Why did you choose, as the writer, to send him down that path?
In the book’s first act, Kevin nearly dies of alcohol poisoning, which is the catalyst for his friends to intervene (along with the fact he was fired from his job and being evicted). Kevin’s strategy to manage his grief over the loss of Francesco was to isolate and self-medicate, and you can see where that got him—the emergency room (twice). Why was his way of coping so self-destructive? Kevin was born during the Eisenhower Administration and raised to be a man, and men don’t talk about their feelings or ask for help. In other words, he’s a product of his generation, from a Catholic working-class background, and with a family history of alcohol. I sent Kevin down this path because it’s a common one for men of all economic backgrounds: our depression often manifests itself in anger, irritability, loss of interest, and isolation. If you’re raised to “be a man” a therapist or a support group may be seen as being weak. Kevin resists even talking about Francesco with his closest gay friend and is forced to go to a support group by his overbearing but well-meaning aunt.

Kevin’s return to Minnesota reminded me that there seemed to be a lot of migration in our community in the first and second decades of the pandemic, with guys leaving big cities for smaller towns to “avoid” the virus, guys moving to the big cities for more knowledgeable healthcare, some guys coming back, some going back home to die among family, etc. Did you experience something like this, having several friends moving away, either temporarily or permanently?
My most memorable experience with relocation was when the Arkansas Department of Health decided the best way to treat a gay Arkansan with AIDS was to buy him a one-way ticket to Minneapolis and give him the address of the Minnesota AIDS Project. The man knew no one in Minnesota. We found him a place in our housing program and connected him with volunteers and medical services. Another young man wound up in our housing program because his parents made him live in a tent in their backyard. Often our clients became our clients because their families rejected them, and they relocated to Minneapolis for social support, medical expertise (such as there was at that time), and a roof over their heads. My friends who moved away generally headed to New York, in particular Alphabet City, which I visited a lot. In their cases, they wanted more opportunities as artists or writers, or just the excitement of New York. Several of them live in New York to this day.

Kevin has a rather quick-triggered temper; this comes out sometimes in his sarcastic comments to his friends and family, sometimes in bursts of genuine rage at those same people. Yet, we forgive him his worst behaviors because his rage feels earned—we understand his rage because we’ve experienced that rage, we recognize it. But Kevin is also capable of acts of real compassion and kindness, as well as moments of teary introspection. Have you ever experienced that dichotomy—in, say, a friend who is grieving the death of a lover? Have you, as I have, ever had moments of explosive rage over the pandemic?
Kevin’s philosophy is to be “nice to people, so long as they are not being dicks.” It’s a philosophy Kevin and I share. Kids are told to walk away from bullies, that it is the mature thing to do, the adult thing. I was not raised that way. There’s an expression in boxing: “Be First.” Throw your punches before your opponent, be aggressive. For the most part, being aggressive and not backing down has led to the dicks walking away, though my husband despairs of this trait in me. Unlike what we are taught, I think bullies enjoy being bullies, and when you walk away, you only increase their high regard for themselves. When you don’t submit to their bullying, maybe they begin to understand that there’s a degree of risk associated with being a dick. That said, if it’s a certainty you’ll get your ass kicked, walk away, or better yet, run like hell.

There was such a range of emotions I experienced, including guilt, kinship, helplessness, heartbreak, fear, courage, and empathy, along with a smoldering rage for those who got to live out their twenties as most people expect to live out their twenties. Even today, when people talk about the challenges of aging, I have to bite my tongue: there is still so much anger I feel about the first decade of AIDS. We know that if this disease had been wiping out young middle- and upper-class heterosexuals, the response would have been very different. I did get in shouting matches, most memorably with fans of Sam Kinison, a so-called comedian who got rich with fag and AIDS jokes. ACT UP Minneapolis protested his Twin Cities appearance; it was hot, shit was said, and I was looking for a fight. Fortunately, ACT UP is non-violent and friends talked me down.

Kevin grows more political as the novel progresses, becomes an ardent ACT UP soldier, occupying Trump Tower, and taking part in other actual historical protests in New York City. To what extent do you think AIDS prompted that kind of activism, channeling rage into action?
We literally had nothing to lose. In 1983, the New York Native published Larry Kramer’s “1,112 and Counting” which begins with this unforgettable warning: “If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.” I believe ACT UP and Treatment Action Group (TAG) saved our lives. We had to do it for ourselves, our status as Americans would not save us for the simple reason that we were gay.

Thank god lesbians took on this battle with us, providing leadership and experience from the feminist movement, and we were also fortunate to have so many heterosexual allies. I think we were effective because we called upon people’s common humanity through efforts like the NAMES Project and the AIDS walks and service organizations, and because we took the in-your-face confrontations directly to those who had to be confronted: the FDA, congress, the White House, the Catholic Church, and Wall Street.

Without giving away too much here, when Suzanne Huntington-Conti, Francesco’s sister-in-law, betrays the family and fabricates a self-serving “memoir,” the betrayal is shocking—and yet, familiar. So many of us dealt with family members who had no respect for the dead. And so Kevin’s hatred of her is a kind of hatred I recognize, and his rage-fueled confrontation of her is just delicious. Not many of us got the satisfaction of that kind of confrontation. Have you ever dealt with such horrors with the family of a friend lost to AIDS? Or known someone who has? Does any especially egregious example stick out for you?
There are too many egregious examples from my time with the Minnesota AIDS Project, and I prefer not to talk about them, because it’s too damn depressing. While I drew on some of these events for the book, I also wanted to impart hope, because even more than outrage, that is what kept me going. I see a lot of highly regarded novels today that are simply catalogs of despair (or “trauma porn”), and while I knew I wanted to convey the trauma of AIDS, I also wanted readers to feel hope by the example of how our community responded.

In addition to our community, what gave me hope were the family members who supported their loved ones unconditionally. They are represented in After Francesco by Francesco’s parents, Eddie’s parents, and by Kevin’s Aunt Nora. At the Minnesota AIDS Project I transitioned from volunteer coordination to fundraising, and my mentor was an older man who had lost his son to AIDS. He was a professional fundraiser who volunteered his skills on our behalf. I remember how he would have to be alone on the anniversary of his son’s death—he had too much grief and anger to be around people. I think about him often.

There’s a lot of humor in After Francesco, much of it in Kevin’s sarcastic remarks, but some of it is humor in a darker vein. Where does Kevin’s humor come from? Would it be fair to say that he uses his humor as both a shield against his pain and a sword to wound others out of his pain?
I think his humor is a blue-collar sort of humor, where insults are a way of showing affection in some cases or shutting down an unwanted discussion in others. It’s also a way to avoid difficult topics, but it also can be a way to acknowledge them. I find Kevin’s humor a healthier way of coping, far better than self-medicating and isolating. When he does mock others, it’s not without cause. I think to his mind, he is making a genuine effort to be civil—at least he isn’t taking a swing at them.

In my own experience with Stage IV cancer (I am in remission), I employed gallows humor quite a bit, shocking people from time to time. I could see the panic in their faces as they wondered what would be the right thing to do: laugh or pretend I hadn’t said anything. In my defense, it certainly took the edge off. I like gallows humor because it’s the humor of the afflicted. It’s not the cruel humor of those unafflicted. At the 1984 GOP convention, the president of American Airlines opened a breakfast speech by joking that “gay” was actually an acronym for “got AIDS yet?” American Airlines, Northwest Orient Airlines, I boycotted them and more, not that it really mattered, since I rarely flew.

I wonder what works we might be reading today if Allen Barnett, Joseph Beam, Christopher Coe, Steven Corbin, Sam D’Allesandro, Melvin Dixon, Michael Grumley, Tim Dlugos, David B. Feinberg, John Fox, Robert Ferro, Essex Hemphill, Bo Huston, Stan Leventhal, Paul Monette, Darrell Yates Rist, Marlon Riggs, Vito Russo, Assotto Saint, Randy Shilts, George Whitmore, and many others had not died of this disease.

Finally, you’ve written that with After Francesco, you wanted “to honor the heroes and heroines of the ’80s and ’90s who fought a literal life-and-death battle against disease, hatred, violence, indifference, and ignorance. And it’s also a recognition that those of us who did survive often live with guilt and an empty space for those friends and lovers we will never see again.” Beyond the personal scars that the pandemic has left on all of us, what do you see as the most significant long-lasting effect the AIDS pandemic has had on our community?
In terms of our community—the AIDS Generation—the long-lasting impact is social (so many people we assumed would be our life-long friends died young) and economic (jobs lost, careers interrupted in order to provide care). For long-term survivors, there is concern about the impact of medications on the normal aging process and cognitive functioning. Finally, I think many of us struggle with guilt that we are still here when so many of our friends and lovers are not.

I wonder what works we might be reading today if Allen Barnett, Joseph Beam, Christopher Coe, Steven Corbin, Sam D’Allesandro, Melvin Dixon, Michael Grumley, Tim Dlugos, David B. Feinberg, John Fox, Robert Ferro, Essex Hemphill, Bo Huston, Stan Leventhal, Paul Monette, Darrell Yates Rist, Marlon Riggs, Vito Russo, Assotto Saint, Randy Shilts, George Whitmore, and many others had not died of this disease.

The good news in all of this is how the AIDS Generation and our allies successfully educated ourselves, cared for our sick, and fought for our future. Systems were changed due to our work, particularly at bureaucracies like the FDA and NIH. The long-term results and ripple effects have been astonishing—a dramatic shift in public opinion, marriage equality, and, at last, federal civil rights protections. That said, I see concerning developments on campuses where I teach, so I have a warning for young activists today: don’t shame or pile on people who have good intentions but don’t follow your assigned script. Confront the institutions and individuals who need to be confronted, like the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, the American Family Association, Supreme Injustice Samuel Alito, and Supreme Injustice Clarence Thomas. Don’t lose your shit over some poor sap who makes an honest mistake. Be curious first, judgmental a distant second.

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. He interviewed Sister Roma for the May 2021 cover story.