Taking leave

Mark Edmundson

  • Borrowed Time by Paul Monette
    Collins Harvill, 342 pp, £12.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 00 271057 9

Walking now in certain parts of large American cities, you encounter a common sight, a group of men, obviously gay, moving in a sort of protective cluster through the crowd. In the middle of the group is one man who is obviously very, very sick. His friends will not let anyone get too close, but not because he presents an immediate danger to the passers-by. It is the man with Aids who is actually imperilled in a crowd. Catching a simple cold, or any of dozens of other infections the healthy body shrugs off, can kill him.

Aids has been a part of gay life in America since 1981 (it now appears that intravenous drug-users were dying of diseases related to the syndrome in the mid-Seventies, though no one much noticed), and the epidemic has transformed every major city’s gay district. Many of the bars and bathhouses are closed; the restaurants have begun to cater to members of what the Government, in its communiqués on Aids, has taken to calling ‘the general population’; fewer men are out cruising for likely strangers. These districts used to have the feel of thriving ethnic neighbourhoods. Those who remain in them seem more subdued, almost assimilated. But as one reads through the now copious gay writing on Aids, it becomes apparent that it’s not only the outer life that’s changed. The Aids epidemic and the way ‘mainstream’ America has responded to it have provoked a mixture of dread, anger and grief in many, if not most, gay people.

Borrowed Time is Paul Monette’s elegy for his lover, Roger Horwitz, who died of illnesses stemming from Aids on 22 October 1986, and though the book contains its complement of anger and fear, it is chiefly a labour of grief. Monette pursues a pair of related objectives. He struggles, first, to record every critical moment of his lover’s illness and of the life they shared before Roger became ill. The human wish behind this activity is paradoxical, both to preserve and to distance the past. And, like every elegy, Borrowed Time is about the search for a language that is adequate to the particular loss.

When Monette and Horwitz met in Boston in 1974, important changes were taking place in gay life in America. Both men were born in the Forties, and grew up in a culture that was virulently homophobic: America seemed unwilling to accept men who deviated more than a little from the box-shouldered heterosexual norm. Perhaps the events of the Sixties made society more receptive to human difference, though it’s hard to imagine many members of the ‘counter-culture’ subscribing, for example, to the gay shibboleth that we’re all perpetually dressed in drag. (That is, we use clothes and manner to fabricate a conventional gender identity that’s inconsistent with the shifting, unconventional nature of our individual desires.) What did matter was the political power gays acquired in cities like New York and San Francisco. By 1977, the Castro district of San Francisco had chosen Harvey Milk for the City Board of Supervisors, making him the country’s first openly gay elected official. When a State Senator named John Briggs introduced an amendment that would have prevented gays from teaching in the California public schools, a grass-roots movement, led by Milk, rose and defeated the Bill by a two-to-one majority. Gay power was at its high-water mark. It was around that time that Monette and Horwitz moved west, to Los Angeles, where gays had won a measure of respect – if never quite benevolent acceptance – for themselves. The two men succeeded professionally: Roger opened up a private law practice; Paul sold his novels and wrote screenplays for the major studios. In the midst of numerous distractions and threats, they kept their relationship intact.

In February of 1985, Roger got sick. He had flu that wouldn’t disappear – fevers, congestion, sweats. The gay community in Los Angeles was far behind San Francisco and New York in what it knew about Aids, and most of the available evidence met, as Monette frequently says, with vigorous forms of denial. Gays in America, as in England, have had the responsibility of educating themselves: though various official sources continually remind us that Aids is ‘the gay disease’, no government education programmes for young people have been aimed at the gay audience in either country. It is said that brochures about Aids had to be smuggled into England from America in diplomatic pouches, so that they would not be confiscated as pornography.

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[*] And the band played on: Politics, People and the Aids Epidemic (Penguin, 1988).