The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket by John Weir (Harper & Row: $15.95; 276 pages.)
"They called me names," Eddie tells his father. "I was just myself and that was all it took. And I will not have anything to do with their baseball-playing, straight, self-satisfying, macho, Ronald Reaganizing, church-going, family-sanctifying, bill-paying world. I just won't. I just won't have anything to do with them."
Eddie's father listens quietly, and waits until his son goes to sleep before he leaves the hospital. Eddie is dying of AIDS, and his outburst is academic, moot. Eddie's not going to have much to do with anything at all, any more.
It's hard to read (and write!) about AIDS. When novelist Robert Ferro wrote about the "sickness," he never named it. (But he later died from it.) When Randy Shiltz wrote the nonfiction book, "And the Band Played On," many readers found mistakes in the reportage: a process that distanced them from the agony Shiltz wrote about.
And Paul Monette's brilliant and beautiful memoir of his lover's life--and death--gave at least Southern California readers another way of distancing themselves from unbearably painful facts. (Why there's Westwood! Melrose Boulevard! UCLA Medical Center! Buzz Krieger, the famous eye doctor!) By focusing on these benign details, readers could partly avoid the pain of the terrible narrative, the irrevocable tragedy of AIDS.
But this novel, simply by being fiction, and using fiction's traditionally seductive devices, ensnares the reader in the first few paragraphs. Once you meet these characters, you're hooked. You have to keep reading through to their harrowing finish.
We first see Eddie, who is 28, but acts 19, lazing the afternoon away in the bathtub. He's a kid, a baby really, still in amniotic fluid, barely even beginning to be himself. He lives, platonically, with a sweet little gamin of a lady named Polly Plugg. These two have come to New York City with twin dreams of finding fame, identity and love. So far, these dreams haven't worked out very well.
When Eddie goes out to the movies alone, he runs into his sometime-boss, Saul Eisenberg, an art appraiser, who, these days, does a lot of work assessing the worldly goods of men who have died from AIDS. Saul is at the movies with Merrit Mather, the man he lives with and is in love with, but the relationship isn't going very well . . .
A pause to look at Mather--a perfect reminder that mean, withholding, vain, self-regarding jerks come in every sexual persuasion. Mather is a seductive teaser, a hypocrite and a low-life swine. He is white, Protestant, perfectly dressed, used to be married and has never gotten around to telling his family that he's gay. He lives with Saul but won't have sex with him. And in case the reader misses just how narcissistic Mather really is, he excels in seduction scenes which play out in fields just outside his country house; scenes in which he enchants lovers of both sexes, and then never calls them again. (He also tells his lovers that he just "tested negative this morning.")
The characters here are helpless against this unloving monster. Polly Plugg loses a lover to him. Saul, after years in the same house with him, still does all his chores but has to beg him for a hug and a kind word. And poor Eddie falls head over heels in love with Mather and soon comes down with AIDS. Was it Mather? Or someone else a long, long time ago? Poor Eddie doesn't know. He seems childlike, almost virginal, still fighting the battles of his childhood. He's not prepared for the terrible death that comes to sweep him away, but he finds the strength, somehow, to deal with it. He thinks of his mother as Doris Day and his father as Joseph Stalin. He knows Polly loves him as a friend, as a sister, and finally Eddie accepts the care that Saul offers him, because the man he most yearns to see, Merrit Mather, won't come to visit him until he's safely dead.
This story takes place against a larger tapestry of a New York City where gay men go to "viewings" and memorial services instead of cocktail parties; where both women and men can't go out on a date with a new person without carrying a virtual hardware store of paraphernalia, and still sex can kill you.
Time and again, characters in this world ask each other only for hugs. Kindness replaces passion as emotional currency. And still the losses are staggering. The author has worked with AIDS patients, and he makes sure we understand the pain here. There's no way of backing off from this wrenching, beautifully told story.