The long-awaited new novel by America's master playwright and activist—a radical reimagining of our history and our hopes and fears
Forty years in the making, The American People embodies Larry Kramer's vision of his beloved and accursed homeland. As the founder of ACT UP and the author of Faggots and The Normal Heart, Kramer has decisively affected American lives and letters. Here, as only he can, he tells the heartbreaking and heroic story of one nation under a plague, contaminated by greed, hate, and disease yet host to transcendent acts of courage and kindness.
In this magisterial novel's sweeping first volume, which runs up to the 1950s, we meet prehistoric monkeys who spread a peculiar virus, a Native American shaman whose sexual explorations mutate into occult visions, and early English settlers who live as loving same-sex couples only to fall victim to the forces of bigotry. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton revel in unexpected intimacies, and John Wilkes Booth's motives for assassinating Abraham Lincoln are thoroughly revised. In the twentieth century, the nightmare of history deepens as a religious sect conspires with eugenicists, McCarthyites, and Ivy Leaguers to exterminate homosexuals, and the AIDS virus begins to spread. Against all this, Kramer sets the tender story of a middle-class family outside Washington, D.C., trying to get along in the darkest of times.
The American People is a work of ribald satire, prophetic anger, and dazzling imagination. It is an encyclopedic indictment written with outrageous love.
Reviewed by T Fleischmann., It wouldn't be implausible if deep in his publisher's office, Kramer's editors had to form a support group. Which is not to say that this his sprawling, brazen, problematic, frustrating, incendiary bid at the Great American Novel, re-visioning the U.S. from European colonialism through the 1950s, thrusting toward 800 pages yet only comprising volume one is entirely misguided. To call it a rough read at times would be an understatement. Of course, Kramer is not known for being easygoing. A founding force behind the revolutionary AIDS activist group ACTUP, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and author of Faggots (a novel) and The Normal Heart (a play turned HBO movie), Kramer has made red-faced fist pumping into his art. This latest book has been 30 years in the making, the subject of much anticipation. It straddles the line between history and novel, propelled along by a fictional narrator, Fred Lemish. A clear Kramer stand-in, Lemish is inspired to write his history when President Ruester (this book's Reagan) references "the American People" in a speech and Lemish realizes that gay men aren't included, a fact even more inimical considering that the "Plague of the Underlying Condition" (this book's term for HIV/AIDS) is well underway. The remedy, then, is "to record a history of hate when one is among the hated," which Fleming does.Were this opus merely history, it might not prove so harrying. A straightforward narrative centering on the contributions of gay men and claiming (as Kramer pardon, as Lemish does) that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Clemens, Adolf Hitler, and Ronald Reagan were all gay would be easy enough to sort through, the citations lined up and examined. Even the Abraham Lincoln orgy scene might earn a place. But the novel is subtitled Search for My Heart, and so this is a very individualized reckoning with a culture that both made Kramer and killed a good number of the people he loved. Its sections vacillate between rant and narrative, tragedy and ribaldry. People eat mud and invent poppers; the history of medicine is shot through with the history of sexuality; the voice of the Underlying Condition insists in all-bold text that it has been around for centuries; and semen and blood and feces flow like rivers. There are striking insights into the human condition and perplexing digressions (the handling of race is particularly cringe inducing at times, with characters of color rarely transcending stereotypes). It's a story that can be as surprisingly tender as one boy loving another, yet as deeply disturbing as the graphically rendered Nazi-led medical-sexual torture of youth. "You tell your history, and I'll tell mine," Lemish reminds us near the end, as though he needed to. Kramer has been operating at a fever pitch for over three decades now, and it's doubtful that even his most ardent fans don't find him consistently frustrating. There are certainly plenty of occasions to turn away from this long-due effort in anger or distrust (I did, three times). But if you have the stomach for it, Kramer is a singular force, furious because he cares. He honestly confronts hard, unspoken truths and goes somewhere with them, which is a rare thing. One wonders what the hell will happen in volume two. T Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty.