Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Great Believers

Rebecca Makkai opens her tremendous new novel with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: "We were the great believers. I have never cared for any men as much as for those who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved--and who now walk the long stormy summer." The "great believers" of Makkai's novel are the multitudes of gay men who were caught up in the first months of the AIDS crisis in the mid 1980s. She focuses her lens on Chicago and introduces us to a group of male friends who are seeing their friends dying one by one. Because many of them have been rejected by their families for being gay in the first place, they have formed their own sorts of families and moral support. It's hard to remember now how much shame was forced upon and carried by gay men and women back then. Testing for the virus was relatively new, and even raising the courage to approach a doctor and take the test was a momentous decision. You could be fired from your job, harassed by strangers, evicted from your home, beaten up, or killed if your "secret" came out to the world. The book follows two alternating narratives, one in the mid 1980s where we see the world through the eyes of Yale, a young gay man working for an art gallery, and one in 2015, where we follow Fiona, whose brother Nic was one of Yale's friends and was one of the earliest AIDS deaths among their group. We see how the men's deaths impacted their friends and families, and continues to affect them 30 years later. A remarkable, sensitive, and personal look at a heartbreaking period in our country's history. Highly recommended.

~ Kelly Currie

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