This queer reader approached How to Survive a Plague with some trepidation. Might it just be too difficult to return to that painful time: a time when so many friends were dying of AIDS? Well, perhaps the biggest surprise in David France’s new book is that in addition to being an important, exhaustively researched history, this also happens to be a genuine page-turner.
How to Survive a Plague tells the history of the AIDS crisis through the stories of several persons who came to be defined as “AIDS activists”. Mr. France renders these characters with a novelist’s sense of detail. The most brilliantly drawn character is Spencer Cox, who this queer reader knew quite well. Mr. France perfectly captures his mixture of sweet, gentle warmth combined with a rapier wit–ready with a sharp quote from Addison DeWitt. It is wise that he chose Mr. Cox’s story to frame this book.
It is entirely appropriate that Mr. France chose to tell this history in the first person–telling his personal story along the way–because the history of the AIDS crisis is at once enormous and deeply personal. For those of us who lived through it, the AIDS crisis crept up on us: first appearing as a newspaper headline, then an acquaintance who lost too much weight, then a sudden death of a young friend. It’s all here: The initial puzzlement that gradually gave way to a completely justifiable panic. The numbing despair as the deaths of friends and acquaintances multiplied. The frustratingly conflicting news. The false hopes: AZT, interferon, remember compound Q?
It is quite remarkable that this queer reader–an ACT-UP veteran–found no inaccuracies in this book whatsoever. My only disagreements come down to emphasis. For instance, this queer reader would have emphasized the role of Ann Northrop more. Her advice to the room as to how to reply to the media when asked about Reagan’s AIDS plan: “It’s a lie! It’s a sham! And it won’t work!” became a rallying cry for the FDA action. Also, this queer reader would liked to have seen more about Michelangelo Signorile. Without his media committee, it is highly unlikely this chant would have ever led the NBC Nightly News. But again, these are questions of emphasis–not accuracy.
Near the beginning of the AIDS crisis, a David Hare play, Plenty, opened on Broadway. Plenty is the story of one woman’s struggle with her own sanity as the excitement of serving as a secret agent in World War Two is replaced by the banality of living in post-war Britain. In many ways this mirrors the activists portrayed in these pages. For what good are these special skills now? Anger? Rage? The willingness to disrupt–even to get arrested? Undoubtedly, the individuals portrayed in these pages are heroes–veterans of a great struggle. Like most veterans, they are underappreciated and traumatized. Mr. France is wise to conclude this book by returning to Spencer Cox’s story, because although Mr. Cox survived the crisis, somehow he could not survive the end of the crisis.
Queer Reader strongly recommends this important book.
David France’s How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS is published by Knopf.