The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart: A Novel

Image of The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 1, 2015
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

Settling into the persona of his stand-in protagonist in the opening lines of his new novel The American People Volume 1: Search for My Heart, author Larry Kramer paints a picture:

“Fred Lemish is preparing to finish his history of The American People. He sits in his apartment with its lovely view of Washington Square, in New York City, his and Edward’s new dog, Charley, the cairn terrier who looks like Toto, chewing a bone at his feet. He faces two 30-inch computer monitors, connected by thick stubborn cords to his beloved Mac tower that contains somewhere in its mysterious innards his entire lifetime. He is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookshelves that contain his encyclopedias, his many volumes on this country’s history (as well as all the great writers he wishes he could write as well as), and his dictionaries, with his nouns and adjectives and adverbs of the who, what, when, where, and how of life. Close at hand on this enormous desk some ten feet square he keeps, like heaps of ready ammunition, the diaries of his, and the world’s, day-by-day life since this plague began. Messy heaps of scattered, torn, furiously scrunched-up manuscript pages lie on the floor his huge desk rests upon, and in several over-flowing, also enormous, wastebaskets containing more of the same, in all of which he’s almost drowning.

“He’s been struggling with this history for many years. He will share his progress with you as he puts it all together in case he doesn’t make it to its end, in which case he’s left instructions and funds for it to be published as is.”

Kramer’s History is a work that has been awaited for years, whispered about. Like Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers or all those short stories that Salinger left in that bunker of his, it has been rumored to exist, to not exist, to be unpublishable and about to be published. Now, with the hefty volume in hand, the reader is left to follow the paper trail that Mr. Kramer scatters throughout the whole of American history.

On the page that follows, Kramer continues:

“A strange and terrifying and fatal disease has appeared in America attacking gay men, including a major number of friends. Within months of its ‘first’ appearance, twenty years short of the end of the twentieth century, it is recognized to be an epidemic my enough employees of the American government and enough member of the science and research establishments, though in on way will it be identified or treated as such. Within one year this epidemic thus becomes a plague, a plague that unless checked will eventually infect hundreds of millions of people all over the globe, too many of whom will die. Again, no one in authority speaks up, says anything, says boo, most especially President Peter Ruester.

“Fred’s book will be a history of this plague, which by the way is called the plague of The Underlying Condition, which, as he writes it, he discovers is also a history of The American People.”

Thus, what Kramer has to offer is history as metaphor, the story of a plague laid over the panorama of American history, like an Instagram filter laid over a Throwback Thursday Facebook pic. The Underlying Condition is given voice in boldface type. Fred Lemish does his best to keep things going, often in the manner of a volunteer emcee at an open mike night in the city’s smallest comedy club.

There are myriad other characters as well: scientists, historians, friends and lovers, witnesses scattered throughout the narrative like Warren Beatty’s living historical reference points (Adela Rogers St. John, Will Durant, George Jessel, Henry Miller, Rebecca West, among many others) in his film Reds.

Safe to say that not since Gore Vidal sat down to write his sequel to Myra Breckenridge, the novel Myron, in which he decided to make a statement about censorship by replacing the names of various organs of reproduction and sexual acts with the last names of those sitting on the Supreme Court at that moment, have so many names been changed in the production of a single work of fiction.

But why?

If the lesser characters, the scientists and historians most especially, study the text in order to speak truth to the reader, as the witnesses to history in Beatty’s Reds did, then how did we end up with Dr. Dripper, or the zesty Dame Lady Hermia Bledd-Wrench, or the slyly-christened President Peter Reuster, who seems strangely similar to a bantam cartoon of President Ronald Reagan?

The answer, as it so often is, is in the pages of the New York Times. In their April 7, 2015 edition, the Times published a piece entitled “Larry Kramer’s Novel ‘The American People’ Adds a Gay Dimension to History,” in which Kramer is quoted as saying that “if he had had his way, he would simply have called the book a work of history rather than fiction.”

The story continues with Kramer being quoted as saying, “Farrar Straus said call it a novel, that way the lawyers will leave you alone . . . But I believe everything in the book is true. It may look like fiction, but to me, it’s not.”

The story ends with another quote from Kramer: “I want this book to be taken seriously as a work of art and a work of thought.”

All well and good.

And likely it will be—at least in part.

But in truth, in restructuring (or at the very least, renaming) his nonfiction history with a gay slant into a work of fiction, a Roman à clef (and, believe, me there have never been so many clefs in any other book ever, ever, ever) it becomes a muddle of a thing. And the reader, certainly in reaching the 500th page if not before, begins to feel as if he somehow misplaced the decoder ring that came packaged with the book itself.

The dipsy-doodle of a narrative rises and falls and, for enough pages to rival even Anne Rice’s abondanza history of New Orleans witches, just sits there, questioning itself as to its own identity, fiction or history, with the Underlying Condition twirling his mustache while doctors undertake ghoulish ministrations and ungodly experiments and gays—from Washington to Lincoln to Alexander Hamilton—secretly walk the halls of the White House.

“Most history is written by straight people, and they don’t have gaydar,” Mr. Kramer was quoted as saying in the Times article. And yet, with his gaydar apparently intact, the list of names of those outed as gay dips considerably from high to low. Certainly the American LGBT community would welcome Abraham Lincoln, but does any group want to lay claim to Alexander Hamilton?

And yet, just when the reader is pondering which hanky to wear in his right rear pocket to indicate his having given up on the book, a miracle happens. On page 524, to be exact, where the reader encounters:

“I was born on the wrong side of the District Line. The District Line is what separates Maryland from Washington, DC, which is as far away as the poor are from the rich. DC means District of Columbia, whatever Columbia means. Everyone knows that. ‘The District’ is another name for Washington, which is over there. Across that line. It’s just a line on a map, but it’s very real when you live on the wrong side of it.”

Here begins a too-brief narrative by a character named Daniel Jerusalem, a gay, Jewish child whose coming-of-age story it is. In this long, long fictional history, this wonky polemic, this personal history, this focused moment contained within such a vast verbiage, displays the beauty that is created when Mr. Kramer—a hero to so many of us who remember the horrors of the 1980s and a president who could not, for so long, bring himself to mention the word “AIDS,” as if, in never mentioning it, he could keep middle America from having to think about such things—lets himself write fiction:

“I want to see Mordy Masturbov naked, and kiss him all over, and touch his skin. I’m so very hungry for him. These are my secret thoughts and I haven’t the vaguest notion how to act on them. There’s no one I can tell about them. I can hardly tell myself. I am too young. Isn’t that what every adult you ever knew said when they couldn’t explain something “too grown-up” to you? ‘You’re too young.’”

It is, in the end, impossible to easily compartmentalize Larry Kramer’s book. Or to say that it is a great book, or even a good one or a bad one. It can be said that it is an omnibus, that it contains all sorts of things, all qualities. Parts are sublime, other parts make the reader sorry for the trees that were pulped in order to carry the ink.

In the end, it is, simply, The American People: Volume 1, as conceived by Larry Kramer and the lawyers of Farrar Strauss. And that will have to do.