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Plague years

by Brian Bromberger

Plague years

The Great Believers: A Novel by Rebecca Makkai; Viking, $27

There is a chilling scene in the first chapter of Rebecca Makkai's new novel "The Great Believers" where the main character, Yale Tishman, is attending a memorial party in 1985 for a close friend, Nico, who has died of AIDS. He goes upstairs and falls asleep. He awakens in the middle of the night. He goes back down to the living room, and no one is inside or outside the house, only a collective silence. "The foggy ridiculous idea came to him that the world had ended, that some apocalypse had swept through and forgotten only him." This vision serves as a kind of dark prophecy for the terrors to come. Yale's world is about to be swallowed up by the carnage of the AIDS epidemic, engulfing all his friends, as one by one they die. Makkai, a heterosexual woman and previous author of "The Hundred-Year House" and "Music for Wartime," has done a remarkable job of re-enacting the sense of hysteria, dread, and uncertainty of those early years of the epidemic, an astounding feat considering she is only 40 years old, too young to have experienced those gloomy times.

The novel alternates chapters: those on a community of cultured gay men in the gay Boystown area of Chicago in the mid-1980s affected by the epidemic, with those set in 2015 as Fiona, Nico's 21-year-old sister and prime caregiver for him and his gay friends, now in her 50s, is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter Claire, who disappeared into a cult. While staying with Richard Campo, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis and is preparing a major retrospective show on that period, she grapples with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with Claire.

Yale, who becomes close with Fiona, is the principal 1980s character. He is development director for Northwestern University to help establish a permanent collection for their campus art gallery. His lover is the unpredictable Charlie Keene, the publisher of a gay newspaper. Through Nora, Fiona's 90-year-old great-aunt, he discovers a potential treasure trove of 1920s paintings, including Modigliani and Soutine, for whom she once modeled. Nora is willing to donate the paintings as long as the gallery exhibits paintings by Ranko Novak, her lover and unknown artist, disabled during WWII, who later committed suicide. It would be the biggest coup of his career, as long as the paintings are deemed authentic. Then the unthinkable happens as Charlie, through an affair that Yale sees as a betrayal, is infected with HIV. Yale's fate, how it will impact Fiona, becomes the novel's central concern.

Makkai did an enormous amount of investigation on the disease's impact on Chicago, reading every issue of Windy City Times (Chicago's biggest gay weekly) from 1985-92, as well as interviewing doctors, nurses, activists, survivors, people with HIV, and people who had been young and gay during the mid-80s. Her research served her well. The Chicago chapters feel authentic, capturing all the complex emotions that accompanied the sense of terror and confusion as friends decide whether or not to take the HIV test, sweat out their results, and if infected, await their first symptoms at a time when there was no treatment, with the often awful choices that had to be made. Makkai is especially effective in showing how random it was who was struck, spared, or survived over a long period, with the accompanying guilt, including that of caregivers.

Makkai's compassionate recapitulation of friendship and loss is so riveting that the 2015 chapters suffer by comparison. They are not nearly as engrossing, especially because Claire's relationship to Fiona is sketchily developed. The whole cult scenario fizzles out, and it is only when Claire attends Richard's art show that we see why Claire is so bitter. She seems to be a case of PTSD whose capacity for love, even to her own daughter, has been depleted by the epidemic. Yet that conclusion emerges clearly only in the final chapters. Previous chapters on her search for Claire seem superfluous in the overlong novel.

The excessive Nora episodes lessen the emotional impact of the well-written AIDS chapters. They were the genesis of the book, which at first was not going to focus on AIDS. But Makkai saw a parallel between the Lost Generation after WWI and the losses of gay men during the height of the AIDS holocaust. Nora doesn't want her lover or his art forgotten. Struggling with his own mortality, Yale is determined to make sure Ranko gets his long overdue art show. "When someone's gone and you're the primary keeper of his memory," Nora confides to Yale, "letting go would be a kind of murder." This role of memory-keeper is an essential theme. Fiona, gazing at Richard's photographs, observes, "They had frozen them [her dead friends] forever, boys with hands in pockets, waiting for everything to begin."

"The Great Believers" is a powerful, empathic, heartbreaking meditation on resilience, the tenacity of love and forgiveness, as well as courage under dire circumstances. Because you feel as though you are reliving those years of pain, catastrophe, and waste, similar memories will be dredged up in older readers. Makkai compels us to revisit this harrowing trauma, emboldening us to say, "Never again."


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