Happy Birthday to the American People

When I told a friend I was reading The American People, he immediately shut down the conversation with a dismissive, “I hate Larry Kramer!”

That’s what you get with Larry Kramer. His anger turns people off. His conviction that he knows what’s right turns people off. Despite the fact that he usually is right, and his anger is justified. In fact, his anger and his arrogance are two of the main reasons that AIDS is no longer the plague it once was. But that’s another story. Or is it?

For Kramer, the line between fact and fiction has always been fairly thin. He has admitted that the reason he could write The Normal Heart so quickly was that he was really just writing about what had actually happened. So when it comes to The American People, his long-awaited tome (clocking in at just under 800 pages—so far), are we talking about fiction or history? The answer, quite clearly, is a little of both.

The volume begins with a series of epigraphs, including this rather telling one from Joseph Conrad: “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing.” For Kramer, too, art must have a social agenda. It must say something about our time, even be a call to action. I don’t know what he would say about the concept of art for art’s sake, but it has always seemed to me that even that dictum is a social statement. And it is well to remember that one of its greatest proponents, Oscar Wilde, always had a message up his subversive sleeve.

How fitting that I should finish this book in the week between Pride and the 4th of July—holidays that both honor, albeit in very different ways, revolution.

Kramer’s history begins in the pre-colonial Everglades and, at the end of Volume 1, brings us to the 1950s. Along the way we meet many of the major figures of American history, several identified by name, others disguised by pseudonyms. (The latter technique seems largely reserved for more modern figures, perhaps only because the living and heirs of the recently deceased are more likely to be litigious.) Thus, we have George Washington as George Washington, but Peter Ruester as Ronald Reagan.

Aside from the historian narrators who quibble among themselve about their own versions of the truth, the only character that remains a constant through the book is the Underlying Condition. This is one of Kramer’s most intriguing tropes. In a literal sense, the UC, as he calls it, is a virus that will eventually evolve into HIV. We see it mutating its way through America, changing its tactics and getting stronger with each generation of hosts. But in a metaphoric sense, it’s a great deal more than that: the Underlying Condition is the dark side of the American dream—the combination of hatred and greed that has followed us through history, the combination that has arguably made our history. As I suspect we will see in Volume 2, AIDS is the ultimate manifestation of that moral virus, the result of a culture that survives by targeting and destroying its own marginal elements.

The first 100 or so pages of the book are a bit hard to get through—lots of competing voices (scientists, historians, and various talking heads), lots of descriptions of violent and ugly episodes, and lots of shit—literal shit. But even in those early sections there are glimmers of brilliance. Indeed, the book is full of inspired moments and several extended passages that are quite insightful and even beautiful. I particularly like the depiction of ordinary people (as opposed to, say, Alexander Hamilton), such as the Jewish family that becomes the center of the story in the second half—allowing Kramer to demonstrate the effects of history on relatable human beings.

Much has been made about how Kramer deals with more historical figures, most of whom he depicts as gay or at least participating in homosexual activity: Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Lincoln, the list goes on. For many of them—e.g., Lincoln and J. Edgar Hoover, of course—there’s nothing surprising here. For others, one wonders how much Kramer’s imagination transformed his stated research. But even that isn’t the point. History doesn’t tell us much about people’s sex lives, other than whether they were married. So why, as Kramer has said elsewhere, presume they’re straight? Why not assume they were gay? By doing so, he provides another through-line, but also a commentary—that homosexuality is natural and therefore deserving of neither shame nor denial. He seems to be daring the reader to argue with him, but you have the sense that he has reams of research to back up everything (much of it actually cited in the text, while other titles and authors are clearly made up). History belongs to the historian, right? And in an age when memoir, with its avowed verisimilitude despite the fact that the human memory plays havoc with literally everything, is the new novel, why shouldn’t fiction be the new history?

And therein lies the genius of the book. Kramer plays with genre, calling into question our ordinary definitions of truth (and, of course, the pesky problem that fact and truth are seldom the same thing). At the same time, he creates a phantasmagoric landscape, complete with a talking virus. The novelist he most reminds me of is Salman Rushdie, and the book I would say this has the most in common with is The Satanic Verses. And we all know what kind of trouble that got Rushdie into.

In this book, as in every other phase of his life, Larry Kramer is fearless. He is 80 years old, living with HIV for decades. He founded both GMHC and ACT-UP, taking on everyone from Anthony Fauci to Ed Koch and Ronald Reagan. He is a force of nature, and a voice that not only demands to be heard, but needs to be heard.

The second volume promises to blow the lid off. If people are upset with what Kramer says about George Washington, just wait until we see what he does to Ronald Reagan.

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