The 1980s. New York City. A time and place, says Andrew Holleran in the introduction to his Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited, that “...felt like attending a dinner party at which some of the guests were being taken outside and shot, while the rest of us were expected to continue eating and making small talk.” Like so many others, New York’s gay community, itself a fledgling entity contending with a hostile mainstream as it tried to find its feet, was thrown into further disarray with the emergence of AIDS.
Sex, the defining aspect of male homosexuality and the catalyst from which a gay subculture was developing, had its meaning rewritten. No longer fun or liberating, sex, in 1980s New York, equalled death.
AIDS meant the gay community had to grow up fast. It was a young scene, comprised of young people, and as such the psychological tools to make sense of AIDS’ devastation were scarce. And so, for a while, the small talk continued. A published writer of fiction, Holleran was, at the time, a columnist for Christopher Street, a gay magazine based in the city. His subject was lifestyle and, for fear of alienating his readership, he sidelined discussion of AIDS in favour of more upbeat topics. As time passed, however, the need for commentary or interpretation on the unfolding events became more pressing than the evasion of the taboo topic.
Even in the midst of his writing, Holleran was far from confident in taking on this new angle. “At no time did commentary seem more pointless than 1983,” he writes. Thankfully, he persevered, and from exhibition and bar reviews, Holleran’s column became a document of reportage in which he observed and analysed the affect of AIDS from its oh-so-ordinary front lines of everyday life: cafes, dance clubs, parks, hospital wards. And, of course, dinner parties.
In 1988, a compendium of his essays was released under the title Ground Zero. Some 20 years on Ground Zero is out of print. Holleran was encouraged to return to his columns by a publisher fearful that one of gay history’s most significant narratives was already slipping into obscurity. The result, his Chronicle, is more than just a reissue, it is a complete reconsideration. Some essays have been cut, while others added, and the introduction has been completely rewritten. The result is a first class document, at times laugh out loud humorous, at others sickeningly, chillingly, distressing.
Because these are discrete essays, there is no overarching argument as such. Instead, with heartfelt honesty and in beautifully executed prose, each piece considers a theme or experience linked to the AIDS crisis. Much of the essays’ success is a consequence of the intimacy Holleran engenders with his readers through the personal vignettes, written in striking detail, which fill his work. We share the shock of calling an old friend, only to find that he’s died in the years since they last saw each other; walking down the street, we feel the tingle of horror elicited simply by checking out an attractive man, always aware that he might be the one who passes you the disease.
There are, however, themes to Holleran’s thought which run through the text. Discussion over AIDS’ representation is one such theme. As Holleran points out, the only stories that anyone really wanted to read about were headlines which screamed ‘Cure Found’. But these were not forthcoming. “The arts absorbed the new subject matter,” he notes, “but so what? ... Writing could not produce a cure.”
Could, Holleran wonders, an uninfected person as he was, legitimately comment on the unfolding crisis? Perhaps humor would help, but with AIDS always in the background, what was there to laugh about, particularly given the disease had already taken his favourite comic playwrite. (In the spirit of the times, when an HIV positive diagnosis often meant ostracism from both the gay and straight communites, the identities of Holleran’s subjects were not revealed.)
Simultaneously stigmatising gay men, AIDS made them public property. Through the mainstream media, “...the sexual practices of men who went to the Mineshaft were now known by married people who went home to Kew Gardens on the subway after a day spent working in Manhattan.” But while the New York Post might be fetishising gay men’s bodies, many men were themselves doing quite the opposite. “Your body—which you have tended, been proud of – is something you begin to view with suspicion, mistrust. ... Your body could be harbouring It.”
It is the examination of the minute details in which Holleran excels. AIDS did not generate a continual trembling fear. Instead, it niggled at the sidelines, unexpectedly rearing its head at both the healthy and the sick. Further, gay community or not, the disease and its affects were very personal. It infected your body, it caused your death. The sense of loneliness AIDS created is alluded to throughout the text: “If years ago you were alienated from the world because of your homosexuality, now you’re alienated from homosexuality.” Twenty years later Holleran’s writings give some means by which to disentangle this otherwise unfathomable situation.
Though much of this review is written in the past tense, covering the early period of the history of the disease, now past, AIDS itself should not relugated thus. In spite of increased awareness, infections are rising. And, while treatment options now are better than they have ever been, the ‘Cure Found’ headline we all hope for remains elusive.
It is no longer possible to neatly classify AIDS as a gay disease, although many in their ignorance often do, but it is a disease with specifically gay cultural history. As Holleran points out, through AIDS “...we have lost a whole generation of gay men, who might otherwise have been valuable mentors to their successors.” To the tiny degree possible from a literary work, this wonderful text acts as a plug in that gap. As such, it is essential reading.