What were you doing in the 1980s?
If you weren’t born yet or are too young to remember, the ’80s was the decade of a scorching AIDS epidemic that burned through gay communities, taking thousands of young people in the prime of their lives. Healthy men in their 20s and 30s began spiking fevers and developing pneumonia and wasting away with horrific symptoms. They learned too late that a virus transmitted through sexual activity was the vector. They learned too soon that they would likely die.
Eventually we all learned that women and heterosexuals and babies and patients receiving blood transfusions were also at risk.
The reality was discordant with the youth of the victims. Suddenly, young men were using canes and wheelchairs and desperately trying to get medical care and insurance from communities that were often ignorant — and worse, uncaring.
I was in my 30s then, and consumed with raising my kids and doing my work and helping to turn the wheels that kept our little life rolling along. I knew about AIDS, of course, but didn’t think about it much because it didn’t touch my life or the lives of my friends. Or so I thought.
Last week I led a book talk on “The Great Believers,” by Rebecca Makkai. She tells the story of a group of friends who lived in and around Boystown in Chicago in the ’80s, many of whom became sick with the virus and part of the staggering death toll in America, which approached 650,000. We all know something about the gay communities in San Francisco and New York, but Makkai wanted to tell us the story of Chicago.
Her novel is a story of the heart, of friends who love one another, support one another and sometimes comfort one another in the last stages of a ghastly disease. She read hundreds of local newspaper stories from the era to capture the tone and flavor of the gay community in Boystown, and it feels authentic.
Her characters think about when they’ll kill themselves, when the symptoms will become too much bear — and then they get sick, and they get worse, and they make bargains and they don’t kill themselves. They suffer all the indignities of a ravaging disease.
I think I somehow missed the essence of the AIDS tragedy that visited this country during those years. I somehow missed how neglected and isolated so many men were because, too often, their own families abandoned them.
A friend of mine recently said that those years were a succession of hospital visits and funerals for him and his gay friends. We hadn’t been in touch. I didn’t know what he was going through, and I wish I had been a better friend.
Makkai tells the story of Yale Tishman, who works at Northwestern University, and his nearest and dearest, including Fiona Marcus, who adopts all the lost boys and sees them through their devastating recurrences and their eventual deaths. The author reminds us of our own vulnerability, as if we need a reminder in the age of the coronavirus.
Dare I say that the book is hopeful? We readers process the grief of those days and years, but we also process the grace in the human spirit that helps us through our darkest days.
In her epigraph, Makkai quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald: “We were the great believers. I have never cared for any men as much as for those who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved — and who now walk the long stormy summer.”
Her novel opens up the world of the men and women who were our friends and family and neighbors, and who fought a difficult and desperate fight for life in the ’80s. She also, through the writing of this story, demonstrates the power of art to make immortal the merely mortal. Some of the characters are photographers; others are painters. Some are writers, like Makkai. They all create the images and drawings and canvases that will endure, despite plagues and wars and passing time.
How uplifting it is to read about young men and women who dig deep within themselves to find courage to live another day and love one another in the most desperate times.
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.