Traitor, Scourge, Prophet: Larry Kramer’s Acerbic Alternate History

Traitor, Scourge, Prophet: Larry Kramer’s Acerbic Alternate History

Traitor, Scourge, Prophet

Larry Kramer’s alternate American history. 

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In the early 1980s, Larry Kramer was persona non grata in much of gay New York and its outposts of Provincetown and Fire Island. His novel Faggots (1978), a vicious satire of a gay man’s search for love amid orgies and druggy lost weekends, had made Kramer a pariah. According to journalist Randy Shilts, Manhattan’s only gay bookstore at the time banned the novel, and “gay critics had advised readers that its purchase represented an act inimical to the interests of gay liberation.”

It’s true that Kramer’s ascetic ideal of gay life—and of gay men, in particular—was out of step with post-Stonewall pleasure seeking. “Why do faggots have to fuck so fucking much?” he writes in the novel. “It’s as if we don’t have anything else to do…. All we do is live in our Ghetto and dance and drug and fuck.” His protagonist, a Jewish screenwriter named Fred Lemish who is a stand-in for Kramer, cautions an unfaithful lover to change “before [he fucks himself] to death.” That line was prescient. Five years later, Kramer’s cover story for the New York Native, “1,112 and Counting,” spelled out the devastating carnage of AIDS. “I am sick of guys who moan that giving up careless sex until this thing blows over is worse than death,” he wrote. “How can they value life so little and cocks and asses so much?”

He was still a contentious figure, but by then, he was also one of the country’s most dogged AIDS activists. He cofounded Gay Men’s Health Crisis to address the burgeoning epidemic in 1982. Frustrated by what he saw as the timidity of his fellow grassroots activists, he helped found the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987. That group’s guerrilla protests—storming the New York Stock Exchange, FDA headquarters, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, among other actions—inspired both condemnation and headlines, much like Kramer himself. Depending on whom you asked, he was a traitor, a scourge, a prophet, or all of the above.

Lately, he has cast himself as a chronicler. Like Daniel Defoe, whose A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is a fictionalized account of the bubonic plague that decimated London in 1665, Kramer has written a fictionalized record of his epidemic: The American People. A two-volume, a nearly 1,700-page phantasmagoria, the pair of novels reimagines the nation’s history as a sordid queer saga, climaxing with the AIDS crisis.

The first volume, Search for My Heart (2015), begins in the primordial muck of the Florida Everglades, where virulent monkeys in heat incubate the Underlying Condition, as Kramer calls HIV. From there, the narrative spans precolonial America through World War II and features lewd cameos by nearly all of the nation’s male demigods. George Washington is “certainly uptight” for “a man who liked to get fucked up the ass”; Benjamin Franklin peddles porn and fetishizes black men; Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth almost have a tryst in a Washington hotel. “I realize that this verges on the farcical, if not the absurd,” Kramer writes in one of the novel’s many metanarrative asides. “Be tolerant. Most of history is like this. You just didn’t know it.”

The recently released second volume, The Brutality of Fact, drills even deeper into the country’s conspiracies and cover-ups. The novel starts where the previous volume left off, in a postwar America overrun with paranoid bureaucrats and male brothels operated by J. Edgar Hoover, and it ends circa the present day. Most of the book focuses on the emergence of HIV/AIDS and the tangled subplots of governmental and medical inaction. Once again, heads of state are rendered as acidic caricatures. Ronald Reagan, aka Peter Ruester, is a senile idiot puppeteered by Nancy Reagan (Purpura Ruester); Bill Clinton, aka Boy Vertle, is an affable blowhard who becomes a turncoat to the gay voters he’d courted; and Donald Trump, aka Dereck Dumster, flickers ominously through the latter half of the novel.

Like volume one, The Brutality of Fact veers among melodrama, tragedy, and farce. Kramer mixes fictional transcripts, playlets, lists, and monologues. There’s no real plot, at least in the conventional sense, just the relentless torrent of history in which those in power suppress or kill gay men. To be fair, there is a sort of sketchy domestic drama tucked inside all of this: an intergenerational story of the Masturbovs, a wealthy Washington family beset by gothic misfortunes, but that’s more like a scaffold on which Kramer drapes his baggy roman à clef.

The novel’s effect is that of an open mic night in a subterranean bar where everyone has an ax to grind. Narrators (including Fred from Faggots) come and go, delivering stemwinders about AIDS activism, the indifference of mainstream media, the greed of Big Pharma, the internecine clashes that fractured the gay movement, and the virus’s cataclysmic death toll. All the crosstalk conjures a bricolage that’s manic and overstuffed but also hypnotic.

While Kramer’s moral ancestor is Defoe, his stylistic contemporaries are Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, and James Ellroy, novelists who take similarly gonzo liberties with historical fact. The difference is that for Kramer, queerness is the essential condition of American history and the American character, rather than race, class, or religion. The persecution and suffering he experienced as a gay man lend gristle to the novel, as well as an afterglow of rage, the megawatt fury that once got him labeled the angriest gay man in the world. He is self-aware enough to mock his single-mindedness; “he was truly a one-issue loudmouth,” he writes of his alter ego Fred in volume two. But having acknowledged his obsession with queerness, Kramer is content to steamroll through history with little consideration for how queerness intersects with race, gender, economics, or any other totalizing force.

He seems more concerned with settling old dustups not only about himself and HIV/AIDS but also about the role of gay people throughout history. “I want so much for us to be better than straight people,” he writes in The Brutality of Fact. For him, gay people are indeed among history’s chosen ones, singled out for their exceptional gifts, unsought martyrdom, and annihilating lust. The novel is part memento mori and part extravagant act of revenge. It doesn’t always succeed, but its misfires only underscore its strangeness and ambition. Contrary to the mythic benevolence of the country it records, Kramer’s novel argues that hatred—rather than the truth—will set you free.

Kramer’s lushest vitriol is directed at those who stood by while AIDS killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. But he doesn’t necessarily exonerate his gay brethren for their role in accelerating the crisis. “Because people are incurably dumb fucks they are not going to stop doing whatever they’re doing that gets them into trouble in the first place just because you tell them what’s killing them,” he writes in volume one. In both the novel and his public statements, Kramer often comes across like a proud father convinced his children could be geniuses if they only applied themselves. As he recently told Interview about gay people, “I think we’re better in positive ways. I think we’re more talented as a population. I think we’re better friends with each other…and I see that we’re wasted as a people partly because of our own fault of not fighting back.”

Fighting back, for Kramer, is often a euphemism for self-restraint. Forty years ago, his activism included evangelizing safe sex and monogamy, recommendations that many gay men denounced as retrograde. (The American People even demonizes poppers as “one of the primary facilitators of the plague.”) He now seems determined to vindicate his sexual conservatism for posterity. At the end of The Brutality of Fact, a character compares Fred to Moses, who led his people out of bondage. But Moses died short of the Promised Land. The implication is that the 84-year-old Kramer doesn’t want to die without credit for leading his people into the pharmacological salvation of effective HIV/AIDS regimens. “More than ever Fred Lemish wants there to be some sort of record that he’d tried, he’d really tried. For history, of course,” Kramer writes.

Still, time hasn’t smoothed his rough edges. The novel offers plenty of caustic squibs about promiscuity and drugs. In one scene from The Brutality of Fact, Fred is unnerved by the libertinism at a gay disco: “Tonight everyone was high on a snort of Magic by midnight, to be followed by a tab of Glycn at 2:00, a half of Nyll at 3:00, and a hit of Blotter by 4:00…. Sleep was for lazies, dropouts, unconcerneds, incompetents, misser-outers.” Fred, “on a pilgrimage for answers,” remains self-righteously sober. In yet another scene, a character watches naked men cavort in a crowded bar and declares, “This is unacceptable. You’re all assholes. You must stop fucking each other to death.” That line was Kramer’s rallying cry throughout the ’80s.

The Brutality of Fact suggests that the conflation of gay liberation with sexual liberation diminished whatever political capital gay people might have had after Stonewall. “Our ‘movement’ becomes single-issue,” Kramer writes, “catering solely to our own primary concern, first, last, and foremost of which is sex, in any way, shape, or form.” The constituencies that made up the not-then-named LGBTQ community—which Kramer satirizes in a list that includes “Black & White Brothers Who Are Not into S&M, Black & White Sisters Who Are into S&M Lightly and Amusingly…Lesbians Alone United, Gay Men For All Seasons…Gay Gals & Guys Who Square Dance Together”—are unified only by their insatiable horniness. In a barbed line that mocks the later merchandising of gay marginality, Kramer writes, “Can we start making T-shirts emblazoned with HELP! We all know how much we love our T-shirts.” (Remember that ACT UP sold T-shirts emblazoned with “Silence = Death.”)

Kramer saves his worst invective for those who could have intervened in the AIDS crisis sooner but didn’t: the White House, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and Big Pharma. As puerile as it often is, his revenge makes for some of the book’s most flamboyant passages, and it dramatizes the hypocrisy of those at the top. Purpura Ruester is depicted as an oversexed femme fatale; Peter Ruester is also oversexed but keeps his proclivities in the closet, and he even works as a rent boy during his early Hollywood years. As president, he prefers to masturbate to his vast porn collection rather than bed Purpura. His son Ron Prescott Reagan, aka Junior Ruester, is portrayed as a covert homosexual haunted by visions of his father’s “rope-like penis.” (When the younger Reagan quit Yale University in 1976 to study ballet, Ronald Reagan allegedly worried his son might be gay.)

The point of this bawdy revisionism is partly the pleasure of Rabelaisian comedy, but it’s also a corrective. “At the center of all history there is always a terrible secret,” Kramer writes, and his novel names these secrets with the vehemence of an Old Testament prophet. There’s the terrible secret that gay people have existed since the dawn of time, which Search for My Heart documents. There’s the terrible secret that the government and Big Pharma conspired to murder or exploit gay people, which is the theme of The Brutality of Fact. And there’s the deeper secret, the foundational secret, of a country whose birthright is genocide and bloodshed and whose ruling class has been uniformly corrupt, which undergirds both volumes.

Perhaps Kramer opted to write these novels rather than a memoir (his nonfiction is collected in 1989’s Reports From the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist) because the cruelty around HIV/AIDS exceeds the standards mandated by fact-checkers and publishers’ legal departments. Shilts’s And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987) and David France’s How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS (2017) are essential texts, but they’re bound to the codes of journalistic ethics. Kramer’s fiction isn’t. His version of history is sublime comeuppance from a group that was denied power for far too long. It’s a history that humiliates and indicts.

For all its rancor, Kramer’s novel is ultimately a monument to grief. The Brutality of Fact contains several interludes titled “From the Book of the Dead,” in which the names of AIDS casualties are listed like stark accusations. This roll call, embedded in what purports to be a national history, recalls a banner at the funeral of writer and activist David Wojnarowicz: “Died of AIDS due to government neglect.” Kramer’s lists suggest that these people, too, died from neglect. They’re part of the American story, and what happened to them is inextricable from the common record. Likewise inextricable are the suicides of people with HIV/AIDS. In one harrowing scene, a man tries to deliver his lover’s ashes to the deceased’s homophobic parents. When they refuse to receive the urn, the man dumps the cremains across their yard.

This mix of love and violence is a snapshot of how the epidemic played out across the country. The flip side was the heroic commitment to life that Kramer and other activists embodied, and that story is also part of his chronicle. “We met people that we’d probably never meet in our entire life under any other circumstance, and here we were—we got very close, and that was it, for life, while planning our very own deaths,” he writes. “It’s overwhelming. It took your breath away.”

Whatever its grotesquerie, its inelegance, its repetitiveness, The American People also takes your breath away. There are few novels like it in our literature—not only in terms of scope but also in its crazed stagger between pathos and camp, realism and absurdism, plain lyricism and obscenity. As befits such an overloaded novel, Search for My Heart opens with 12 epigraphs; the last, from Samuel Beckett, is a credo for Kramer’s whole endeavor: “Let me say before I go any further that I forgive nobody.” Forgiveness, Kramer wants us to understand, is another word for forgetting.

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