Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS
by Dale Peck
Published by Soho Press
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
January 22, 2015.
Although I was very impressed by several kinds of daring in Dale Peck’s (1967–) first novel, Martin and John (1993), I had not read any of his journalism or his “hatchet job” (his own appellation) reviews of fiction by others. Visions and Revisions does not credit where earlier versions (the “visions” in contrast to the “revisions”) appeared. (There are some dates, though “1989–2014” is not very informative.)
The structure of Peck’s first two novels (The Law of Enclosures was the second, published in 1996) was one of theme and variations. Visions and Revisions circles around several serial killers (while deploring the fascination with serial killers) and the unconcern on the part of London, Milwaukee, and New York police with the lives of men picked up, killed, and dismembered. This old but accurate critique dovetails with the similarly old but accurate critique of the Reagan administration’s indifference to the lives of the gay men, among whom AIDS was first identified.
There are glancing accounts of various short-term relationships Peck had during what he identified as the “second half of the first half of the AIDS epidemic” (1987–96) and an ecstatic account of abnegation in an Amsterdam sex club (date not given) along with a dump of miscellany, including a lengthy letter dated 1965 found in a recording of Carmen, a b&d anecdote to make most readers (gay or straight) cringe, and a survey of footwear at an ACT-UP panel.
Although Peck has made a reputation as a savage critic (those “hatchet jobs”), he has nothing but nostalgia for ACT-UP (while being very vague about what it did or what he did in it) and genuflects several times to Larry Kramer. There is not even a glimmer of an analysis of the effectiveness of ACT-UP actions. He does not recall the successful demands to get very toxic and ineffective drugs into the bodies of gay men with HIV.
1987 was the year of the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP); 1996 was the year in which those with access to medical technology and medical insurance began taking protease inhibitors (indinavir initially), which turned HIV-infection into a chronic (if still sometimes fatal) disease. Oddly, Peck keeps identifying the revolution of 1996 as combination therapy (which came later, even for combining AZT with another drug, let alone effective combinations) rather than the approval and widespread prescription of protease inhibitors. Even in updating his (old but accurate) critique of Andrew Sullivan’s 1996 proclamation of “the ends of AIDS,” Peck does not mention the side effects of the miracle protease inhibitors (lipodystrophy, myopathy, and kidney stones among others plus developing resistance to other protease inhibitors).
After the romantic cant of Tim Dean’s Unlimited Intimacy, I found Peck’s discussion of unsafe sex with strangers salutary. Rather than Dean’s fantasies of a brotherhood (to which Dean does not belong), Peck writes that “anonymous sex is a way to shed your civilized identity for a more protean being: to hook up with a stranger, but also, and more profoundly, to be a stranger to yourself.”
(Peck acknowledges Leo Besant’s discussion in Homos of anticommunitarian impulses and shattering of the self (ego) through/in homosexual desire.)
Peck has interesting things to say about some things (including “new narrative” as post-punk) and uninteresting things to say about others in this grab-bag of reminisces from/about the decade in American (and western European) gay life before the protease deliverance. It may be of some use to social historians, though I don’t think it counts as “social history,” and it is certainly not “institutional history” (of the amorphous institution of ACT UP or its more focused offshoot (from the New York ACT UP Treatment and Data Committee), the Treatment Action Group).
Pros: valid critiques and some titillation
Cons: miscellaneous with no critical evaluation of what ACT UP was and wrought
©22 January 2015, Stephen O. Murray