Good News for Queer Readers: Andrew Holleran’s Chronicle of a Plague Revisited

Posted on July 12, 2008
Filed Under Book Review | 313 Comments

Andrew HolleranThe quest for quality queer literature is a challenging one.  These are tough times.  Fewer and fewer queer titles are being published.  We’ve seen some of our most-beloved queer bookstores close–victims of increasing urban real estate prices and competition from the internet.  And we have recently witnessed the demise of the queer-friendly publishing house:  Carrol and Graf.  It’s enough to make a queer reader depressed.

But then every once in a while an exception comes along.  Recently da capo Press published a magnificent exception.  Andrew Holleran’s Chronicle of a Plague Revisited is a collection of essays about AIDS, written in the nineteen-eighties.  In the new introduction, Mr. Holleran describes these crisis years as a time when, “Living in New York…felt like attending a dinner party at which some of the guests were taken outside and shot while the rest of the guests were expected to continue eating and making small talk.”

Several of these essays are profiles of alive and vibrant persons–so alive and vibrant it comes as a surprise for the reader to learn that they are dead.  There is only one piece that actually feels like an obituary:  “Tragic Drag.”  Quite simply “Tragic Drag” is the best -written Charles Ludlam obituary ever.  Only David Kaufman’s classic Ludlam biography, Ridiculous!, comes as close to capturing the magic of this theatrical genius. 

There is a fierce urgency to these essays. The reader experiences the height of the AIDS crisis in real time–as the author struggles to make sense of it –asking the (at the time) un-answerable questions:  If it’s so “difficult  to get…why do so many people have it?”  If they “know more about the virus than any other in history …why can’t they stop it?”  And what about Compound Q?  Could that be the cure?

As exquisite as the writing is in these essays, there is a strain of scepticism that runs through them.  Over and over again Mr. Holleran questions the value of his endeavor:   “As admirable as the writing or publishing of books about AIDS may be, I really don’t know who reads them with pleasure–because I suspect there is one thing and only one thing everyone wants to read and that is the headline:  CURE FOUND.”  Twenty-some years later, that headline has not yet been published.  We have, instead, arrived at a time when HIV/AIDS is manageable–like diabetes.  Maybe the time has come when we can begin to study the crisis years with interest–if not necessarily pleasure.

Reading this collection of brief essays, I found myself repeatedly reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up.  Both are beautifully-written.  And both share a certain stunned melancholia.  The author seems almost literally petrified.  Not quite recognizing his own world, he moves in slow-motion–carefully noting the smallest telling detail.  But in Mr. Holleran’s book, it isn’t the author who has cracked up; it’s his world.

Andrew Holleran’s Chronicle of a Plague Revisited is published by da capo Press.



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