Writing about AIDS in the 1980s is perhaps more important now than ever, as survivors grow older, younger queer folk take freedoms for granted and the forces of revisionism smooth over our history.
Reading about AIDS in the 1980s is perhaps more resonant now than ever, as we contrast that initial response – denial that led to genocide - with the current mobilisation by governments, the media and the medical profession against the more indiscriminate killer that is Covid-19.
Brian Malloy’s After Francesco takes us back to 1988 through the words of Kevin, who’s trying to makes sense of life in the wake of his lover's death from AIDS. Having moved to NY from Minneapolis to come out, get laid and fall in love, Kevin’s purpose is subsequently demolished by Francesco’s demise. How do you pick up the pieces of your own life, let alone find love again, when everything – friendship, love, sex – is associated with death?
After Francesco is at its most effective when it tackles the crisis head on, chronicling the war fought by activists against the neglect that cost the lives of so many, embedding real Act Up demonstrations into the narrative, such as the march on the FDA to demand the availability of experimental drugs.
It’s at its best when it reveals the countless ways the disease was amplified by an arsenal of man-wielded weapons: shame, bigotry, hatred, neglect and greed. It’s most affecting when it describes the ravages of AIDS on one’s body, one’s dignity, one’s hard-won but still fragile sense of pride. It’s particularly moving when it invokes the social innovations victims, friends and lovers brought forward in self-defence: support networks, surrogate families, allyship and new forms of confrontational activism.
New York is vibrantly described as a land of opportunity for thousands of gay kids fleeing small towns to find themselves; a playground that is also a minefield patrolled by gay bashers, violent cops and an invisible but deadly virus; a battleground for titanic forces: Trump’s greed, Koch’s hypocrisy and Reagan’s bigotry pitted against an uprising of the marginalised.
Having lived through this hell, Malloy takes his responsibility seriously. This novel feels written for those born later, an education disguised as a new adult romance – albeit a very good one. I got the sense accessibility was just as important as authenticity. How do you hook young readers on a bleak period drama about sickness, grief and death? Using his considerable gifts as a writer – dialogue, humour, and characterisation, Malloy negotiates tonal shifts with dexterity, compromising very little to bring as many as he can on the journey.
When his characters reminisce about the good old days, when getting a cold didn’t mean picking out your pallbearers, Malloy seems to be encouraging younger readers not to take their own contemporary happiness for granted. Forty years after the first cases were identified, there are still lessons to be learned. As more and more queer writers of that era fall out of print, it’s books like Malloy’s that remind us of how far we’ve come, and how vigilant we must remain.