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The AIDS Chronicles : Randy Shilts Writes the Biography of an Epidemic and Finds More Bunglers Than Heroes

October 09, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — As he merged into the milling throng at the Castro Street fair in San Francisco last Sunday, Randy Shilts figured his chances were equally good of getting slugged or hugged.

An openly gay reporter whose beat includes the most openly gay community in America, Shilts is used to being embroiled in the raucous fray of San Francisco politics. Last weekend, though, he thought that his presence might be particularly volatile.

First Copies at Bookstore

On Friday, the first copies of his epic exploration of the AIDS epidemic, "And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic," arrived at The Love that Dares bookstore, and by Saturday afternoon, men could be seen at Castro Street's wood-paneled cafes with the 630-page, $25 volume propped up beside cups of cappuccino.

Earlier, Shilts had dropped by the offices of the Chronicle, where he has spent five years reporting on AIDS. He found an electronic message from a colleague on his computer screen: " . . . not only are you going to be a (expletive) multimillionaire, but yer going to cop a Pulitzer too." Early reviews have praised the book for its no-holds-barred reporting (" . . . A landmark work. Its importance cannot be overstated," said Publishers Weekly) and producers are already bidding for film rights.

But the myriad individuals and institutions mentioned in the book are not reacting with universal enthusiasm. No less an authority than National Cancer Institute retrovirologist Robert Gallo has raised strong objections to certain aspects of the book and claims that significant corrections will appear in future editions.

Shilts himself complains that headline writers at certain newspapers and magazines have blown out of proportion a controversial segment of the story--his painstaking investigation of "Patient Zero," the French Canadian airline flight attendant who medical detectives connected sexually with 40 of the first 240 AIDS victims in this country, and who may have brought AIDS to the United States.

As Shilts portrays the unfolding of the epidemic--naming names all the way--the institutions Americans count on to protect them from tragedy failed miserably. As fatalities rise in his chronological account, the public health establishment dawdles. The international research community bickers over petty issues, the media smugly pigeonholes the disease as a niggling problem of an unimportant fringe group and politicians let self-interest outweigh public health issues while the Reagan Administration repeatedly performs radical surgery on an already emaciated AIDS budget.

Shilts also turns up the lights on the homosexual community itself, revealing the wildly indulgent lives of many who, in his depiction, denied the reality of AIDS and let their commercial, sexual and public relations interests impede their personal and professional decisions about confronting the disease.

Past reporting of this sort by Shilts had already stirred some gays to outrage, he said. A homosexual newspaper labeled him a "Gay Uncle Tom." But as Shilts strolled through the fair on this "gay high holy day," male couples stepped forward to congratulate him, shake his hand and even offer hugs. Clearly, times have changed, he observed.

"And the Band Played On" unfolds chronologically, intercutting narrative scenes from the lives of scientists, physicians, politicians, activists and victims as they're drawn into the wake of a mysterious new disease.

"Pure Michener," Shilts calls his technique. But the book reads more like an amalgam of detective novel, political potboiler and--with its quickly rising body count--horror story.

There are few pure heroes or villains in the yarn, but rather real-life characters whose good intentions lead to indecisive bumbling, characters who let greed or the lust for glory overcome altruism, and people who simply lack the leadership to plunge into a battle that is dangerous in so many ways.

On the other hand, there are many characters who have the epidemic thrust upon them and react with a resolve and courage that, in retrospect, might be defined as heroism.

Shilts himself appears rarely, and then only as "a reporter," but his own story and persona are interesting if not integral to the tale.

A native of Aurora, Ill., Shilts was a journalism student at the University of Oregon when he decided it would be inappropriate to conceal his sexual orientation.

'Personal Integrity'

"To me, being open about being gay is solely a statement of personal integrity," he said. "I'd met a lot of older gay professionals who lived their lives in terror that they were going to be discovered. I decided I was never going to be in a position in my life where I had to cover up who I was."

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