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The Way of All Flesh

FAGGOTS A Novel By Larry Kramer; Grove Press: 366 pp., $14 paper

June 04, 2000|REYNOLDS PRICE | Reynolds Price is the author of numerous books, including the novel "Kate Vaiden," the memoir "A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing" and, most recently, a collection of essays, "Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care?" His essay in somewhat different form will appear as the foreword to the new edition of Larry Kramer's "Faggots."

The success of any satire is gauged by the degree of offense it provokes at its initial appearance and by the durability of that offense. Larry Kramer's novel "Faggots"--a tragedy within a comedy--was published in 1978 to mixed cries of praise, thanks and execration from the community it portrayed. These decades later, anyone who searches out present-day responses on the Internet will quickly find that the wounds inflicted by "Faggots" are burning still. The fact that The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times did not notice the novel at its publication is yet another clear sign of success--just or unjust, the book was truly outrageous; and the gray mechanics of popular culture were prepared to ignore its existence. It has, nonetheless, proven far too healthy to bow to contumely and oblivion; and it continues to be a stumbling block for many. That's a distinction that very few serious novels, of any era, can claim.

In retrospect, what was even more remarkable about Kramer's voice in 1978 was that his long yet astonishingly controlled cry--a cry that, to many, seemed puritan and self-loathing--was in fact a prophecy of a sort that's virtually impossible to match in the prior history of satire in English. Certainly the most famous of 20th century satires--George Orwell's widely known visions of universal totalitarianism and communism--have proved deceptive. Perhaps only the muffled Russian overtones of approaching social and spiritual disaster in Gogol's "Lost Souls" or the late novels of Dostoevsky provide parallels, and even they were less precise than the vision which Kramer so relentlessly embodied in his crowded spectacle.

To glance at his subject first, however--anyone who experienced, or closely observed, the American and European male homosexual revolution of the 1970s and early '80s can confirm an all but incredible fact. Kramer's account of American queer culture in those years is far more nearly literal history than heightened reality (the merely accurate and nonjudgmental word "queer" has always felt right to me, though the misleading and now appallingly ironic "gay" has triumphed). The book's first extended set piece--the teeming party/orgy at Garfield Toye's apartment--chimes with more than one episode which I knew of; and the climactic sequence at Fire Island only condenses into the arc of a single weekend the substance of straight-faced reports (with only minor stretches) that were available, in those days, from the soberest veterans and the hardest-core pornographic films.

What central error in that world, then, did Kramer perceive; and what descending reality did he come to dread so ominously that it compelled him to write not a sermon or a sociological study but a novel as full of laughter as woe? It would be easy to say, as more than one of Kramer's characters does, that the frenzied sexual activity which the male body so readily proved capable of performing made the stated goal of much of that activity literally impossible--if the goal, that is, was love or psychic intimacy between men of good sense and reasonable vigor.

It wouldn't have taken a mind of Kramer's quality to conclude that, whatever prodigies the male genitals can perform, the human mind is incapable of emotional focus when it's asked to experience so much emotional intensity with so many different objects. And when orgasmic sex ceases to constitute emotional intensity for its participants, then what remains in the realm of sensory possibility for the deadened veteran--human torture, murder, the consumption of children? (The rise of female promiscuity in the same decades raises the question of whether heedless women can, by implication, be included in Kramer's condemnation. My own sense is probably not. Very few women appear to have been psychically impelled toward such physical extravagance.) Beneath Kramer's obvious denunciation of mindless male promiscuity, then, lies the seed of both his revulsion and his dread.

*

He makes, and reiterates memorably, a claim as old as the ancient Hebrew and Greek poets. Yet it's a claim not advanced by any character in "Faggots" nor by any other observer or participant of whom I was aware in that 15-year skin feast--all flesh is grass. The human body, however groomed and buffed in gymnasiums, is an unspeakably fragile organism. Depending on one's genetic heritage, the body appears to perform like an uncomplaining workhorse through a fair amount of youthful excess; but in fact it neither forgets nor forgives that excess. Brain cells are destroyed or muted by alcohol and other toxic chemicals; and even without the sudden intervention of monster viruses, the magnificent web of the human immune system is subject to radical and quite early damage. Unchecked male sexual performance, once past the phenomenal power of adolescence, has now been proven to demand irreplaceable expenditures of mental and physical energy far past the warnings of the direst priest or evangelist.

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