Those essays bothered people, but they didn't bother me. (Especially because the very last essay in the book does nothing but praise Rebecca Brown.) Anyone who's read vicious reviews by Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Pauline Kael, or Joan Didion would be able to see that Peck's pieces are part of a long tradition: non-hetero-white-men ripping apart hetero-white-male work. Peck's essays were more reckless and shameless than, say, McCarthy's piece on J.D. Salinger, but just as elegant. Literary folks were scandalized and aghast, but literary folks love to be scandalized and aghast. (Can you believe someone would exaggerate in print? My word.)
In April, Dale Peck published a book that doesn't consist of Dale Peck going around telling everyone what their problem is. Visions and Revisions is about being gay and living through the "hothouse" period of AIDS, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. It's full of previously published chunks of journalism and memoir that have been submerged in molten time, and then hardened and cooled into Literature. It's funny and full of sex, in addition to being sad and full of ghosts.
AIDS is the perfect subject for a born exaggerator like Peck. Tens of millions of people have died worldwide of AIDS. It's dumb to compare calamities, but in sheer numbers, it would take at least 200 9/11s to equal the number of Americans who've died of AIDS. Worldwide, it would take more than 7,000 9/11s to equal the number of people who've died of AIDS. How do you exaggerate that? His instinct toward provocation, rather than being merely flashy, is productive, leading him to poke holes in all sorts of received wisdom. "Conservatives will tell you that it was, in fact, the sexual revolution that made AIDS possible, if not inevitable," he writes, "but the truth of the matter is that people have always fucked in ways not sanctioned by political authority, and if you want to blame the plague on anyone—besides your elected leaders—then blame the Wright brothers."
The AIDS crisis is also a perfect topic for Peck because he lived through it. He lived in New York City and gave "thirty or so hours of my time each week" to the cause, appearing in "meetings and marches; at actions and demos; working phone trees; xeroxing and stapling flyers..." He marched in the street during the memorial service for the artist David Wojnarowicz. He was present when "the cremated remains of people who had died of AIDS were thrown over the fence that surrounded the Bush White House." He watched friends die—people he used to fuck, people he'd always hoped to fuck, famous artists, everyone. His reflections have the ability to show gay people what it was like to be alive then versus now, which is important for the younger generation, guys to whom "the AIDS crisis" means about as much as "the savings and loan crisis" means to my generation. (Nothing.) He's been grappling with death since his very first piece of writing—a short story he wrote after a dream he had about the "mysterious circumstances" surrounding his mother's death. She died when he was 3. His literary mind was calibrated toward visions.
There are flaws here or there in Visions and Revisions, for instance didactic statements like "HIV prevention requires more than theorizing, monitors, or laws: it requires condoms." That sentence was unquestionably true in 2013, when the book was written, but in 2015, it looks obviously dated. It's not true that HIV prevention "requires condoms," not in a world that contains PrEP, also known as Truvada, which prevents the transmission of HIV even among unprotected partners. But that's a small thing. By and large, Visions and Revisions is powerfully written and hard to criticize, an openhearted, vivid, funny book that pulls off the neat trick of being fearful and fearless simultaneously. And as I mentioned, the subject matter fits Peck's proneness toward exaggeration perfectly. AIDS as a mortal crisis is beyond the realm of measured statements—so the guy who compared Ulysses to diarrhea in the New Republic is the man for the job.
In place of grandstanding and flamethrowing, Visions and Revisions gives us intense flashes of intimacy, revelations most writers wouldn't have the balls to put on paper. The former macho literary punk is now writing about his weaknesses and susceptibilities, his shortcomings and compulsions, and every one of his disclosures adds to his credibility. "It's not that I wanted to visit a sex club: I felt compelled to," he writes. "The gay identity I was adopting as both a man and a writer was epicurean, libertine, and quite possibly not good for me. In lieu of discrete acts of missionary monogamy, sex had become vertical, social, with innumerable partners coalescing and drifting apart in scenarios that could go on for hours, days even, though none of the players at the end might have been present at the beginning." When he describes the anonymous-sex-filled back room at Limelight, a New York City dance club, he's like a courtroom sketch artist, painting a scene we would otherwise never see. As he stands in the club:
Some hairy-chested dude with poppers-glazed eyes pinches my nipple while someone else whose face I haven't really seen applies his mouth to my cock, and for a moment the scene is reduced to its physical parameters. My body; his—and his, and his. There's a dick in each of my hands. Wait, let me rephrase that: there's a dick in each of my hands! One goes with the hairy chest, but I'm not sure what the other's connected to. I wouldn't mind doing a little sucking myself, but my lips are chapped and the bottom one might have a small cut, so no kissing for me, let alone sucking.
This is something you don't hear described much, something too intimate to talk about with most people, the kind of human truth that cries out for literary treatment: that waver of worry in an HIV-negative gay man's mind about the small cut he "might" have. The "might" slays me—such was the state of anxiety among gay men in the 1980s and '90s that it included worrying about problems that didn't even exist.
That particular agony is starting to feel—faintly, finally—dated. Faintly. When AIDS was a death sentence, gay men were trapped in their own personal holocausts, lowercase h, to each a hell of himself, the sick shot through with shame, the well shot through with terror that any move might be fatal. Even a minor misstep vis-à-vis a cut on one's lip could result in being covered in purple taunts while one's insides turned terminal. In the hypothetical, that cut on the lower lip—that possible cut—becomes a portal to another world, a potential future, a future in which one is dying of AIDS. I have experienced this panic in life before, but I haven't experienced it many times in literature.
Nor has there been enough written about the fluid, ever-changing, medical-advances-dependent dance between HIV-negative guys and HIV-positive guys—a stigma within the gay community amplified by the stigma outside it. For the people who never got HIV and the people who survived it, there is also the question of guilt. "It's morbid," Peck writes after the scene with all those dicks in his hands, "but I can't help wondering how many gay men went out for a night as equivocal as the one I just had and died for it."
Even though the subtitle of the book (Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS) makes it clear that this is an AIDS book, the first 50 pages are all about gay serial killers. The grim logic is clear—AIDS made "gay sex" connote "death"—but Peck takes the thought a step further, demonstrating the media's complicity in creating that connotation. "At some point during the 1970s or 1980s," he writes, "serial murder became a spectator sport, and gay serial killers, with their clueless wives and teenage accomplices, their necrophilia and cannibalism, their clown paintings and torture chambers... became America's favorite gladiators." That's a brilliant reconfiguration of the era—the heyday of lurid daytime talk shows, the era of politicians laughing at AIDS deaths, the age of pastors raking in money with snake-oil ex-gay schemes. Peck once told the New York Times that his favorite writer is Joan Didion, and her scent is everywhere, including in the scenes where Peck flies out to Milwaukee to see the bars where Jeffrey Dahmer picked up men. Here's a Didionesque gravity roll of a sentence describing signs Peck saw hanging in one of Dahmer's old haunts:
I found signs when I went to another bar, the Block, posted in the corner where sex, when it happened, happened, informing a crowd of men whose activities didn't seem much affected that, because of the serial killer, "reporters might be present."
Charles Manson and Jim Jones make appearances in Didion's The White Album, but that was published in 1979. By the time Dahmer was eating people, Didion had moved on to presidents. One service the book provides is that fans of Joan Didion finally get to see what it might have sounded like if she ever did writing on Dahmer. It's not just her self-consciousness, her dryness, and her wit that he channels, but also the way she has of bludgeoning the reader with a crucial unexpected phrase toward the end of a sentence. Here's Peck doing that very thing with Thomas Mulcahy, a closeted businessman murdered in New York City:
Though ostensibly in New York City to give a sales presentation on July 8, 1992, he went first, on July 7, to the Townhouse, a restaurant on the Upper East Side with a reputation as a hustler bar, and from there, at 11:30 pm, to an automated teller machine, and then, rather than return to his room at the Barbizon Hotel, he went at some unknown time with the person or persons who eventually dumped seven plastic garbage bags containing pieces of his body, and an eighth that contained his briefcase, along two highways in Ocean County, New Jersey.
The whiplash is impressive, the way the line itself jerks you back, makes you flinch: Though he was supposedly there for this reason, in fact he was dead before that reason could take place. That was written by someone who's digested a lot of Didion.
When Peck writes about a London serial killer who posed as a man interested in casual BDSM sex as a cover for a crime spree of torturing men to death, Peck demonstrates a pronounced (and profound) sensitivity to context. If he has to use his own body—and his own suite of sexual tastes—to get you to understand that fixating literally on the overlap between activities involved in BDSM and activities involved in torturing someone to death is just completely wrong, a category error, he will do it:
Unlike the New York murders, there was, for me, a sexual ambiguity in the London murders that wasn't based on race or youth but instead on a straightforward erotic affinity with both the killer and his real and potential victims, and this ambiguity, this affinity, checked my pen whenever I tried writing about what had happened. Exposing men who concealed themselves in a costume of leather or rubber or military uniform or skin regalia to set themselves apart not just from the average straight person or the average gay person but, if only for a few hours, their average, everyday selves in order to engage in a stylized pick-up and sexual ritual that might involve blindfolds, gags, bondage, roleplaying, pissing, shitting, bloodletting, fistfucking, asphyxiation, and no small amount of pain—open palms, closed fists, boots, belts, crops, whips, clamps, needles, brands—meant writing about things that I had done or might do, and that I did to distinguish myself from "average" straight people and "average" gay people and my "average" everyday self. It meant taking a special-because-secret activity and exposing it, thus robbing it, at least temporarily, of secrecy and distinction. It meant admitting to reporters from the Sunday Times that there are in fact many things gay men who "practice sadomasochism" do in bed that leave them open to attack, if the person they have gone home with happens to be a murderer. And in the process of trying to explain in rational terms an irrational activity, it meant feeling more than a little silly.
And speaking of silliness: There's also humor in Visions and Revisions. I don't think it's too crazy to assume Peck is taking a page from Edmund White's book here. White is the author of, among other things, a masterpiece of an AIDS novel called The Farewell Symphony—which is amazing in part because of how little it dwells on AIDS. It's a tour de force of anecdotal hilariousness dwelling on everything but AIDS. White once told an interviewer for the Guardian that the humor in The Farewell Symphony was "a means of disarming the reader and softening him up for the kill. [Humor] seemed to me a way of getting 'round people's quite natural defenses. If you announce from the beginning you're writing an AIDS book, then people just don't get around to reading that book."
Peck gets around readers' defenses with asides like this:
When I got crabs when I was thirty-five, I was like, I can't believe you waited so long! They made quite an entrance though—I discovered them on the plane back from Barcelona. Sorry, Delta!
Throughout the book, he upends taboos with glee, like the scene where he talks about getting aroused while getting an STD checkup:
When my doctor's office took a swab, the Q-tip in my urethra was less uncomfortable than the effort to avoid an erection while the hot nurse practitioner "milked" my penis to push what little discharge there was toward the tip.
If that seems shocking to you, well, there's a whole lineage of scenes like that in gay literature, the best of which is probably in The Farewell Symphony itself. Here's the narrator, a stand-in for White, going to get an STD treated and describing what happened next:
I'd contracted gonorrhea in my penis. After the doctor gave me two horse shots of penicillin, which he stuck me with as painfully as possible, he said, "Wanna fuck me now?"
"But I've got the clap!" I protested.
"I'll give myself a shot as soon as we're finished." He dropped his pants but did not remove his white doctor's smock or stethoscope. The strange setting and kinky situation excited me as I climbed onto the examining table behind his bare, lean ass. I caught a glimpse of his legendarily big penis, which had never been seen erect. It dangled, as did his stethoscope, on the table.
When White was pressed by that Guardian interviewer about his view that AIDS books ought to be funny, he explained that AIDS literature has "become awfully kitschy—all those terrible plays by Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner, with angels and lovers who have deathbed marriages." The Normal Heart and Angels in America are sacred cows to Peck, beyond criticism. White is happy to slaughter them.
White's slights strike me as edgier comments on literature than anything Peck might have said in his meanest review. After all, White himself has HIV and counts several AIDS deaths among his closest lovers. Meanwhile, Peck genuflects at the feet of Kramer and Kushner. Visions and Revisions refers to Angels in America as "the most significant literary response to the AIDS epidemic" in existence, and it calls Kramer "the only man I have ever known whom I consider a hero." Peck has his reverences, it turns out, along with his incapacities and blind spots, like everyone else.
The best moments in Visions and Revisions come when Peck's punchy genius fails, when a ghost suddenly steps into his writing room, when the know-it-all puts down his sword and admits he doesn't know how to say what he wishes he could say. Here he is starting to tell you about someone he knew who died of AIDS and then catching himself, stopping himself, unsure of himself:
I remember this one time... Fuck. That's how you talk about dead people, isn't it, after the emotions have dulled and the specifics faded. After twenty-three years have gone by. "I remember this one time," you say, knowing that at the time it hadn't been an "experience" of a memory, let alone a symbol. It had been life. Yours. Theirs.
This is a writer stabbing at writing itself. He's lamenting writing's power to reduce people. That is not the same problem with writing that Joan Didion built The White Album around, although it's not unrelated. Didion wrote about stories never being true, about the false narratives and false redemptions writing creates. A story can't help but reduce someone to particulars, Peck is saying, but in light of someone who is no longer alive, someone who no longer gets to be, reduction to a few particulars is unacceptable. And yet we reduce. We tell stories. We tell ourselves stories in order to live.