Love and losses in K.M. Soehnlein's 'Army of Lovers'

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Tuesday October 11, 2022
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author K.M. Soehnlein
author K.M. Soehnlein

For his latest novel, celebrated Lambda Literary Award-winning novelist K.M. Soehnlein channeled his personal history as a New York City AIDS activist in the 1980s to lend the story authenticity and heartfelt emotion. Embedded within this rich portrayal of a pivotal time in queer history, "Army of Lovers" is an incredibly moving and resonant story of love, anger, betrayal, sex, and the fight for equality.

It's the 1980s, a time when the murky clouds of sickness and death permeated every corner of homosexual life and Paul, the novel's lead character, arrives in New York City in his early 20s after a valiant escape from the confines of a stagnant New Jersey youth.

Embracing his new life, Paul is a firecracker, alive with life and the thrill of possibility, immediately syncing up with AIDS activist groups and solidly gelling with the kind of alternative family that offers unconditional love and a sense of belonging (along with cheap rents and plenty of partying).

But the shine on that sparkly diamond begins to fade once Paul realizes that while Manhattan is a party town full of sex, drugs, and disco tea dances, it also offers lethal danger in the streets and a political atmosphere that would rather see him six feet under than thriving.

He settles in with Derek, and together they carve out a life together making ends meet, and enjoying the electricity of queer activism, which doubles as a chance to cruise, network, and connect on more carnal levels.

When HIV-positive Zack enters the picture, however, things, of course, get complicated and the action moves temporarily to San Francisco where he relocates from New York. Readers will revel in the minor details Soehnlein infuses into the story and those who have been in the Bay Area for the long haul will find themselves briefly pausing mid-sentence to remember and reflect on how things used to be.

Hot sex proliferates throughout Soehnlein's novel, and whether it occurs within the gloom of HIV infection or packed inside a hot moment shared between boyfriends, it's never gratuitous, but instead presents the era as it was in all its erotic folly.

Despite the war brewing, in that time, against the gay community from governmental and clinical fronts, there was always time and lots of room to love each other.

While a sense of loss looms large over the final sections of the book, it is appropriate and necessary and drives home the historical heft of such a memorable, character-driven story as this.

Yes, the New York and San Francisco glory days depicted in the book are long gone, but in its place remains a community built upon the stringent work of its ancestors; on the backs of queens who paved the way with blood, sweat, wig glue, tears, and tiaras.

In this stunning return to form, Soehnlein's brilliant novel of love, sex, social activism, and sobering loss will incite nostalgia, pride, and a fierce sense of queer solidarity.

'Army of Lovers,' by K.M. Soehnlein; Amble Press, $20.95

Together with Litquake and Fabulosa Books, K.M. Soehnlein will appear with Jesse Ataide on October 20, 7pm at Strut, 470 Castro Street. Registration is required to attend this event.

The University of San Francisco Fall Faculty Reading presents Soehnlein along with Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Maw Shein Win on November 15 at 7:45pm at UCSF, 2130 Fulton Street, in the Maraschi Room, Fromm Hall.

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