Book Review: Visions and Revisions
by Dale Peck
Soho Press, 2015
To call Dale Peck a pompous writer is flatly factual but not necessarily damning. Even the best of his novels are just so much confectioner’s fluff wrapped around the central spindle of the author’s unflinchingly high regard for himself, and his fantastic 2004 collection of book reviews, Hatchet Jobs, is the single greatest aria of tetchiness this side of a Puccini opera, a book that so thoroughly misunderstands what literature is for that you almost want to cheer it on as you’re chuckling. The entertainment value of these things is undeniable; better by far an insufferable writer than a boring one.
Peck is never boring, but pomposity works better on some subjects than others. Hence the queasiness induced by the subtitle of his new book Visions and Revisions – “Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS.” This is a brilliant, eloquent author, but when you read that subtitle, you reflexively think, “Insufferable or not, surely Dale Peck will acknowledge that this subject – this subject of all subjects – is bigger than he is? Surely he’ll approach it with the humility and broad perspective any plague survivor should feel?”
Alas, no. “Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS” sounds better than “I Sure Did Whore Around a Lot in the Late ’80s,” but a rose by any other name is still going to end up at New St. Marks bathhouse at 3 in the morning on a work night. We’re hardly out of the starting gate of Visions and Revisions before we’re getting a guided tour of the notches on Peck’s bedpost:
Francois was Brian’s ex. Brian wasn’t interested but Francois was, and he invited me over for Christmas; I stayed three days. A month later he passed me off to Marek, whose kiss had a chemical tang – not my thing. Brian (a different Brian) had been a professional masseur, and the massages were better than the sex; soon enough, though, his hands grew tired and my dick grew restless. Jean-Claude and I made it through all four seasons of the year, starting in spring and ending in winter. He broke up with me during my lunch break – oh, the drama! – but we got back together, and then I broke up with him on Thanksgiving day.
Visions and Revisions bills itself as a memoir – an unwise decision on the part of Soho Press’s marketing people, considering the genuinely towering memoirs that came out of the AIDS epidemic – but it’s really just an uneven and slightly ragged miscellany; Peck’s rhetorical gifts work only a bit harder to keep the whole thing together than his authorial laziness does to pull it apart. He charts the course of AIDS in New York City from its initial unchecked rampage in the mid-1980s, and the concomitant puritanical backlash, to the slight improvement in both statistics and attitudes that seemed to start around 1990 – an improvement he tries to put in perspective:
In the wake of later developments, it’s easy to forget that back rooms, sex clubs, and bathhouses re-emerged not because of some newfound tolerance by straight people (or their elected officials) for the more risque aspects of the gay milieu, but because even the most rudimentary understanding of how HIV is transmitted will tell you it’s hard to get, which is one of the reasons why everyone in the world isn’t infected or, well, dead. That group sex and promiscuity were significant factors in the virus’s spread in the gay community in the first years of the epidemic – which is to say, before the invention of safe sex by Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen in 1992 … is borne out by the demographics of infection in the developed world.
A great deal of Visions and Revisions is given over to perhaps the last emotion you’d think anybody would ever associate with a subject like the AIDS epidemic: nostalgia. Peck remembers the refiner’s fire of his own loves and losses with a poignancy that cries out for greater depth and reflection than he gives them in these pages, and when he’s reminiscing about “the heady days before hipsters purchased poverty like a fashion statement,” (there are equally cherish-worthy quips throughout the book) he can very effectively conjure a rattier and more authentic era in the intellectual life of the East Coast, a time when “there was just the fragmented reality of political demonstrations and academic conferences, independent bookstores selling books published by small presses and guerrilla xeroxing for those who couldn’t afford even those cheap paperbacks, handmade zines instead of the piss elegance of McSweeney’s.” The sense of war-worn camaraderie here is palpable and, despite its author’s formidable critical presence, sweet. And there are recurrent notes of an optimism that uncannily has threads of defeatism woven all through it:
When I think back to the hothouse period between 1987 and 1996, which is to say, the second half of the first half of the AIDS epidemic, which is to say, the years between the founding of ACT UP and the sudden and almost wholly unanticipated success of protease inhibitors and combination therapy … I see it through a scrim of despair and failure, the former understandable, the latter less so, given the profound changes so soon to come, and the pivotal role ACT UP played in bringing them about. This disconnect has long puzzled me because, despite the global nature of the plague – despite 34 million HIV-positive people in the world, and nearly three million new infections each year, not to mention almost two million deaths – we beat the epidemic here. In America, I mean, in New York, or at least in my circle of friends. People stopped dropping dead is what I mean, and many of the people who continue to die are victims of extenuating circumstances as much as HIV: of addiction, and broken health care, and an increasingly stratified educational system that’s created a permanent and disempowered underclass. But still. We won. The AIDS wards are empty, the streets aren’t lined with walking corpses.
If you’re wondering which is more annoying, the fact that this makes three “which is to say”s in two excerpts or that positively vertiginous elevator-drop of narcissism “In America, I mean, in New York, or at least in my circle of friends,” you’re not alone; I had many such dilemmas while reading Visions and Revisions, by turns smiling at its ferocious intensity and groaning at its preening solecisms. Such a dichotomy is very much the nature of reading Dale Peck, and maybe we should all be grateful for that. In fact, I’m certain we should be.