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Andrew Holleran was a successful novelist in 1980 when he began writing a column for the magazine Christopher Street, the gay literary equivalent of The New Yorker. The column, “New York Notebook,” was about the latest thrills and lesser issues of urban gay life—dinner parties with friends, dance clubs and their music tracks, Greek statues on display at the Met or the Getty, and the loneliness one feels at the holidays. Holleran had a strong sense of character, a good ear for pithy dialogue, a focused concentration for theme and metaphor, and a lush prose style that served him well, and when the AIDS epidemic arrived Holleran continued to write about the minutiae of gay life, only now his themes and details swirled around bolder issues: illness, fear, anxiety, death, and grief. By 1986 Holleran admits that he was writing two kinds of essays: descriptions of New York City as a cemetery and elegies for friends.
Ground Zero, first published in 1988, collected 23 of these essays. It was a bleak, harrowing, and important look at the impact of early years of the AIDS epidemic on the intersecting circles of gay men, particularly the more upscale ones in Manhattan and Fire Island. Holleran wrote of visits to hospitals to see sick friends, attending funerals, memorials, and wakes, and discovering his present-day life as a sequence of memories. And Holleran captured best what many other gay writers seemed to ignore or avoid when writing about the plague (if they wrote about it at all)—the fear and the denial of the times. He also depicted a gay metropolis at change: unruly, nervous, frightened, suspicious, and angry. Still, what rose to the surface of those grim, beautifully-executed essays was his firm portrayal of gay men and their friendships and how important they were to each other in the course of these trying and uncertain times.
At the urging of a few editors—and Holleran discovering that his book of essays about the early years of AIDS was out of print —the author revisited his Christopher Street essays and has reassembled them to become Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath. Nine of the original 23 essays in Ground Zero are omitted in this new volume, including two erudite pieces on literary authors—one on Henry James and another on George Santayana—both of which felt out place in the original work. Also missing, however, are three essays on giving up sex, two satires on safer sex, and one piece on anger (or the absence of it), all of which erase the energy, urgency, and levity present in the earlier collection. (Also gone is a superb essay on vacations.) Holleran has replaced these omissions with ten nostalgic essays, a few published subsequent to Ground Zero when his column became known as “C.S. Notebook.” Among the finer ones is “Emmanuel’s Loft,” about his friendship with the author Emmanuel Dreuilhe and Dreuiilhe’s career, relationships, and demise from the virus, structurally similar to “Circles,” the opening essay of this new collection, about Holleran’s friendship with a gymnast named Cosmo, but equally as poignant, melancholic, and disquieting.
Like Dickens walking into the London night to report his findings, Holleran also frequently takes to the streets of Manhattan to report what he is missing. He is on the street in “Sheridan Square,” “The Incredible Shrinking City,” “Little Boats,” and “Walking New York,” among others, wistfully arriving at building after building, gazing up at windows and wondering if friends he has lost touch with are at home, have moved away, or worse, are dead and gone and forgotten. In these pages, as in all of Holleran’s recent works, the narrator is a haunted survivor, marked by his past. “There is another city,” he writes in the essay “The Names of Flowers,” while attending a party held in the loft of a deceased friend, “The doppelgänger that coexists with us: Invisible, mental, it draws attention to itself when I pass certain apartment buildings, a bathhouse that has closed, or enter a room in which someone used to live.”
Not all of these essays are set in New York City, however. A few take place or begin in Florida, where Holleran settled in 1983 because of a family matter. “Tuesday Nights,” revolving around a gay support group meeting in Gainesville, is a fine piece of reporting and analysis, and “Bobby’s Grave,” about a visit to a small town cemetery and one of the added essays in the new collection, is particularly affecting. (Many of Holleran’s Florida essays from Christopher Street which served as the backbone for his 1996 novel The Beauty of Men are not included in this new volume.)
I am a great admirer of the contents of both editions of Holleran’s essays, as I was when they originally appeared in Christopher Street and other publications, and I am grateful to the impact of them on my own life in the city and my thinking and writing about the epidemic. Holleran is one of the most vital and distinct voices in gay literature, and to me, these essays represent a point of view of what was happening during the early years of AIDS, even if Holleran, like many of us “worried well,” only arrived at the conclusion that nothing about the epidemic made any sense at all. But I am disappointed by the redundancy and narrow scope of Holleran’s “revisitation,” as if life had stopped somewhere around 1986 and all the author could do was to look back and be wistful of the years before AIDS arrived. Missing are many of Holleran’s notable essays on subjects such as bathhouses, oral sex, blood work, the March on Washington, and the AIDS Quilt, which should have been part of this new collection. In his introductory essay to Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited, Holleran admits that he avoided writing of many things of AIDS, including the schism between HIV-positive gay men and those who remained negative, but he was acutely aware, however, of how it fragmented gay life. Also absent from this reassembled collection is any writing about the transformative positive forces that the epidemic unleashed — the angry power of ACT UP and Queer Nation, the restorative hope of cocktail drugs, the significant roles of gay men and lesbians as caregivers and volunteers in community and social services, not to mention their contribution to the changes of our country’s medical and health institutions. Twenty years after the publication of Ground Zero, Holleran revisits the plague exactly as he witnessed it: as a shell-shocked survivor full of guilt and nostalgia. “We have lost a whole generation of gay men, who might otherwise have been valuable mentors to their successors,” Holleran broadly states in his introduction.
“Of course, gay life evolved without those who died. One can even argue that the very assimilation that AIDS brought about seems to have caused the disintegration of the gay community, though surely that would have resulted anyway from the inevitable change in generations, not to mention new technology like the computer.”
Like Ground Zero, the original collection of Holleran’s AIDS essays, the import and power of Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited lies in the cumulative effect of what resides within its pages: the depth of the denial in those early years, the unbelievable details and destruction by the virus, the harsh, unexpectedness of the grief, the sudden eulogies to friends, and the surmounting loss with no end in sight. Holleran also recounts in his introduction that when a nearby fire seemed posed to destroy his home in Florida, the one item he thought of saving was an essay of his friend’s struggle to survive AIDS.
“It seemed important there be some record of what he went through,” the author writes, and this is precisely the same reason why Holleran’s new book of those forgotten days should endure.
CHRONICLE OF A PLAGUE, REVISITED:
AIDS and Its Aftermath
By Andrew Holleran
Da Capo Press
Paperback, 264 pp, $16.00