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Years ago, some friends and I started a book group for gay men. We called it the Bad Boys Book Club and our original intent was to read gay books. We soon became a mixed gay and straight men’s group that would read anything interesting, in part because it seemed like there were fewer and fewer gay novels that were being brought out. Some of us were from the generation Dale Peck identifies, from that second half of the first half of the AIDS years, who describes his literary consumption like this:
[…] for three or four years I read almost nothing that hadn’t been published in the previous decade or been written by a gay man or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered person–everything else lacked urgency to me, seemed so divorced from the present moment in a world that was being remade before my eyes, by a disease, and by the people fighting it.
Our book club waited for the newest Edmund White, David Leavitt, Sarah Schulman, E. Lynn Harris novel as if it were nutrients for our bodies and souls. Those fictions helped us find meaning in the midst of the awful truth of our lives in that painful period. In recent years we witnessed a new outpouring, the novels have given way to a new form, and we were blessed with memoirs, sometimes by the same authors, and others: Richard Blanco, Charles Blow, Brad Gooch, Martin Duberman, Sean Straub, Bill Clegg, Michelle Tea, Patti Smith, and George Hodgman. Dale Peck is a perfect representation of this emerging genre, the confessional social history expressed with literary flair, a newer form of the New Narrative genre Peck has represented in the past.
In this collection, Peck’s likes and dislikes are directly communicated. He extensively critiques Leo Bersani’s Homos, and with kind deference appreciates Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, although trivializes it as bordering on the sentimental. He dispatches Andrew Sullivan’s myopic perspective, and makes an appeal to consider more closely the dynamics or race and gender in examine the meaning of HIV and AIDS. He reserves heroic status to Larry Kramer, and clearly hopes to be seen in his lineage. Like Kramer, Dale’s tone can be acerbic. He appropriately also lauds Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body, an under-acclaimed work of genius, for its candor and its structure. Peculiar are his omissions: how can the story of AIDS literature be reconstructed without acknowledging and honoring the work of Sarah Schulman: her novels, her essays, her historiography, yet except for listing her in the canon of AIDS intellectual thought in the beginning of the book, he omits any discussion of her contribution. I kept waiting to see how he writes about her work and I was disappointed.
In Visions and Revisions, Peck compiles and re-edits material principally presented as stand-alone essays in their original publication, weaving a sort of non-linear portrait of the period during which HIV/AIDS was typically a terminal illness, in the time before protease changed it to a potentially manageable chronic illness for those privileged to have access to medication and health care. He notes that Robert Ferro re-wrote the opening lines of Second Son, and I wondered to what extent he had done the same to create this new extended essay built from previous work. The breadth of this piece demonstrates his skill as a journalist, social analyst, essayist, diarist, poet and novelist. The entire first 172 pages serve as a preface and footnote both to the concluding section, “13 ecstasies of the soul”. These final pages elevate the entire text from sociology to poetry, theology, and mysticism rooted in the physical experience of the body.
I found myself annoyed at times to the extent to which Dale shares copious amounts of information about his own sexual exploits. I was less interested in his predilection for ejaculating in the mouths of his sex partners, until reading the conclusion in the first section, where he says of his words transmitted to us on the page:
[…] the water has left my mouth and entered yours. Now you have choices. You can spit it out, first of all, or you can swallow it. You can swallow some or and pass the rest back to me. You can bring a third person in to our chain. You can do nothing at all. There are other choices, some of which are not known to me, but at any rate what happens next is up to you.
This renders the sexual details infused throughout the narrative less gratuitous and more almost elegiac. Some of it is exhibitionist, some of it revealing, all of it in service to his aspiration: “I’ll show you what AIDS has shown me, if you’ll show me what AIDS has shown you.”
For myself, as one who spent my AIDS activist years not only at protests but also by accompanying the sick and dying on their journey, comforting their families and conducting hundreds of their weddings before they were legal and hundreds more of their funerals while pastor of the gay church in the San Francisco’s Castro district, I know why I needed to read this book. I stopped breathing when I read what Peck says about his early years in ACT-UP:
I was a body and a voice, and for the first and last time in my life, an unconflicted believer. If I go to my grave thinking that I never did anything more important than what I did in ACT-UP when I was twenty two and twenty three and twenty four years old–and so far nothing has come close–I will go to my grave happy and proud.
This describes how hard it is to be a survivor of those times, grateful as I am to have done so. It would kill me to have to go through it again. I would never trade the experience for anything in the world. There is something beyond crying, which I did for several minutes the first, second and third times I read this passage. There is art that reveals mysteries, there are words that liberate, and his testimony here and again later in one of the final prose poem elegies enlivened my faith. Describing the death of his friend, or his friends, or perhaps his own someday he prophesies,
One day you will reach out too far to the left and too far to the right. You will reach out so far that you will be unable to draw your hands back in, and so you will continue to reach farther and farther out until your body splits open and what is inside is released and shines forth, like a star.
I respect Peck’s cynicism, his realism, and yet these words read like scripture to me, promising resurrection while depicting crucifixion, and though it might be the last thing Peck intended, it stirred my hope that life has more to reveal, more intensity, more beauty, even when my experience of the AIDS years obscures that from my heart.
Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS
By Dale Peck
Hardcover, 9781616954413, 212 pp,
Review by Jim Mitulski (with Jim Van Buskirk).
About Jim Mitulski:
Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski has pastored within the gay affirming Metropolitan Community Church since 1983 and was appointed Elder serving the denomination’s Region 2 in November 2005. Mitulski (as he prefers to be known) has served MCC congregations in New York, San Francisco,Guerneville and Glendale. His 15 year service as Pastor of MCC San Francisco coincided with the height of the HIV health crisis. By the time he left that congregation in 2001 he had officiated at over 500 funerals, sometimes 6 to 8 a week. Immediately prior to his appointment as an Elder, he served on the staff of the denomination’s West Hollywood headquarters, being responsible for leadership development and seminary relations.
About Jim Van Buskirk:
Jim Van Buskirk’s essays have been featured in various books, newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, and websites. Jim co-authored (with Susan Stryker) “Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area” (Chronicle Books, 1996), and (with Will Shank) “Celluloid San Francisco: The Film Lover’s Guide to Bay Area Movie Locations” (Chicago Review Press, 2006). He co-edited the nonfiction anthologies “Identity Envy: Wanting to Be Who We’re Not” (Harrington Park Press, 2007; co-editor Jim Tushinski) and “Love, Castro Street: Reflections of San Francisco” (Alyson Publications, 2007; co-editor Katherine V. Forrest). Jim appears in the documentary “Not in Our Town: Northern California, representing ‘Reversing Vandalism’,” the project in which mutilated library books were transformed into artworks. After working as Program Manager of the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library from 1992 to 2007, Jim was Book Group Coordinator at the Jewish Community Library, and now works as a freelance writer, book group facilitator, exhibit curator, public speaker, archivist and librarian.