Read an Excerpt from Larry Kramer’s ‘American People: Volume I’
Author: William Johnson
April 7, 2015
This month, Farrar, Straus and Giroux is releasing the long-awaited new novel from author and activist Larry Kramer, The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart: A Novel. The American People is an irreverent tragicomedy that provides a counter-narrative to the standard North American historical mythology, with a decidedly gay bent.
From the publisher:
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.
FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL
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 tough 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 overflowing, 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.
How much did he find out? How much shame and horror at all that was and is being enacted and endured? Shame for whom? He’d always been a hopeful fellow, God knows why, or how. Hopeful fellows, just to get along, often acquire a thick encrustment, to use a fancy word for being blind.
He had not wanted to write this history. He had not wanted to do a lot of things in his life. For a while he didn’t even want to be Fred Lemish. Everything had always seemed a forging on against awfully high tides of one kind or another. Often it has just been a bad case of feeling sorry for himself, like we all do, every single one of us. But he knows that writing this history is a requirement he must fulfill. He has no choice.
He decides to finally belly up to this assignment on that day when he hears President Peter Ruester refer to “The American People” and realizes that the president of the United States is not talking about him or his people, and that he, Fred Lemish, had best do something about it. A strange and terrifying and fatal disease has appeared in America attacking gay men, including a major number of his friends. Within months of its “first” appearance, twenty years short of the end of the twentieth century, it is recognized to be an epidemic by enough employees of the American government and enough members of the science and research establishments, though in no 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.
If Fred’s history will seem less unbiased than some would wish, let it never be overlooked that it is no small task to record a history of hate when one is among the hated.
And while one begins at a beginning, as J. M. Roberts, another historian, has written, there is never a beginning, something has always come before.
And as Roberts also said, most people’s notions of what is going on are often wrong.
Truths are hard to find, if they can really be found at all. Roberts said that, too. What an honest fellow, Fred thinks, so upfront with warnings usually never posted so early on, if at all.
Fred hopes in writing his history that he’ll convince you. But as someone once said, hope is a thing with feathers. Still and all, he pledges to himself that he will write the book he wants to, irrespective of the many obstacles to truth that important stuff always throws up in its wake.
Indeed, had he not, and to be sure, and you can bet your bottom dollar, pledged to offer to all Thomases doubting his suitability for this enormous task these words from an earlier toiler in similar circumstances in defense of his own reporting of an earlier plague (Fred tries to choose good role models):
In any case the narrator . . . would have little claim to competence for a task like this, had not chance put him in the way of gathering much information, and had he not been, by the force of things, closely involved in all that he proposes to narrate. This is his justification for playing the part of a historian. Naturally, a historian, even an amateur, always has data, personal or second hand, to guide him. The present narrator has three kinds of data: first, what he saw himself; secondly, the accounts of other eyewitnesses (thanks to the part he played, he was enabled to learn their personal impressions from all those figuring in this chronicle); and, lastly, documents that subsequently came into his hands. He proposes to draw on these records whenever this seems desirable, and to employ them.
(The Plague, Albert Camus, 1948)
Fred has sought, and will seek, the services of many people to help him write this history. Some you may recognize; others you will not. Of course, some of them are fools. It is always particularly important to listen to fools.
More than most histories, this one must of necessity be visited by a host of insistent narrators attempting to be heard. Some are accepted “experts” in their fields, whatever that definition can be proved to mean; some should be and are not; some are useful for little beyond what they can tell us of certain matters; some are more interested in intruding than in sharing what they really know. An overwhelming number will be what will become known as “UC activists.”
History is words and most of the important ones never reach paper. People talk. People confide in each other. People gossip. People exaggerate. People lie. It is the good historian’s duty to locate and to record as much of this as is useful. Second rate historians disdain such sources, which is why so much history as written is second rate. We shall have occasion to argue this case often.
Mention should be made of the two great research libraries in our field. Lady Jane Greeting’s library, devoted to “the medical literature of the New Worlde—for is not the beste way to charte a nation’s history to tracke how sick it is?” partners, as it were, with the library her husband had earlier established in London to similarly catalogue his homeland. Lady Greeting started her establishment in 1647 in Nearodell, her birthplace and the Strode family estate, on land that would become Charleston, South Carolina. Today this library is part of the University of Southern Medicine and Jewry. Lady Jane Greeting was not Jewish, nor was her husband. The Sir John Greeting Institute of Worldwide Medical Knowledge of All Peoples, in London, is the largest medical library anywhere, and very fussy about the inclusion in all citations of its entire name. The depth and importance of the collections in both these Greeting libraries are priceless. Sir John wanted to know everything about anything connected to the maintenance of the body. By the time he married Lady Jane, rather late in his own life, he had traveled over much of the globe as it was then known, and sent back to London every parchment, pamphlet, prescription, and, if possible, concrete example concerning every ailment, eruption, remedy, and likely deterrent to normalcy that every tribe, people, and settlement might have assembled. The range is quite extraordinary, from tubs for birthing during bowel hot flashes in the Amazon jungle to grinders to turn frozen human limbs into poultices for “dinosaur” bites in Antarctica. Similarly, Lady Jane’s own assemblages are as eyepopping. Her interests were primarily American Indian and she catalogued some several thousand tribes. Much of what we know today about early American medicine and treatment we know because of Lady Jane and her obsession. The Sir John Greeting Institute of Worldwide Medical Knowledge of All Peoples continues to add to its collection every day.
The Admiral Mason Iron Vaultum Library of the National Institute of Tumor Sciences (NITS) in Punic, Maryland, is our largest research repository of America’s ills and maladies. Who Admiral Mason was, or what an Iron Vaultum was, or what either had to do with each other or a library is to this day a mystery. It is more extensive—i.e., voluminous (bulk mail is, after all, an American invention)—than perceptive. One does not usually go to Vaultum for answers, but rather for clues on where else to look, which should not lessen its value to scholars. Many of Vaultum’s contents are embargoed from viewing by the general public. It is top-secret stuff, for one reason or another, often no longer valid, much of it long forgotten, and gaining access to it requires an investigation, a security clearance, many forms filled out in multi-copies, and final approval from a federal Chief Librarian (there are currently 1,124). What is inside this library, or was ever inside this library, to warrant such exclusionary behavior also remains unknown; once upon a time Somebody made a rule or passed a law.
As long as acknowledgments of thanks are already peeking through, let us express appreciation to the distinguished lesbian historian Sarah Schulman, for her indomitable compilation of activists’ experiences in the ACT UP Oral History, as recollected here by some members, and to the late Deep Throat, who went to his grave requesting his anonymity be respected.
It is an interesting process—whom to let enter one’s history. A history, after all and ironically, is a singular affair. “This is what I think” is compounded from other people’s words and deeds to construct a personal house of thought. While any history worth its writing encompasses the activities of too many people and events to succumb to any traffic cop, the good historian is still his own best roving conductor.
So come along. Some of you may remember, as Fred does, the old fashioned movie theaters, with their “Community Sings,” when the huge grand organ rose out of the pit, as it did for him at Loew’s Capitol Theater in downtown Washington, D.C. A strange man would pound upon it, and the words of the popular songs of the day were writ large, lined up hugely on the silver screen, an animated orb bouncing along them syllable by syllable. Yes, come along and let America’s voices once again sing out in the dark as we respond to that master organist’s command: “Follow the bouncing ball!”
THE FIRST AMERICAN PEOPLE
The First American People are monkeys who eat each other.
Histories of The American People do not usually begin with monkeys. As they insistently cast an unwanted anthropomorphic focus on who we are and how we are here, those who have written histories invariably exclude monkeys. They start with Indians, or George Washington, who, indeed, proclaimed, “All history will begin with me!” No one writes about monkeys who eat each other. And who will eat us. As we eat them. (And no one has yet written what, precisely, began with George Washington.)
Well, we are going to begin with monkeys.
Monkey is an imprecise, meaningless, inoffensive word. They will be called orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, macaques, guenons, capuchins, marmosets, tamarins, apes (they will never be called The First American People), oh there will be more kinds and species (there is a difference between “a kind” and “a species” but not right here) identified before someone finally pays attention to them, which is still eons and eras away from their first appearance on our stage. Yes, monkey sounds less threatening than sacred baboon or barbary ape or crying tantalus or wretched oyuung or sooty mangabey or Pan troglodytes troglodytes, which, this last named, will become a particularly threatening monkey when it’s discovered to be related to our plague, or drills and red-eared and Preuss guenons and black colobuses, these last four will one day be discovered to have had bits of The Underlying Condition in their makeup for some 32,000 years! Since none of them form very stable genetic clusters, it is simpler to put them all together and call them monkeys. Or chimps. Or chimpanzees, which has taken hold although they really are a specialty unto themselves.
If we’re all descended from monkeys, and it is hoped everybody accepts that we are (although these days in certain states of a retrograde intellectual nature this appears to be less and less the case), then we shall find many who attempt to make monkeys seem cute and sympathetic. But monkeys are not cute. They may groom each other all the time and look clean, but monkeys are cesspools of disease. Believe it or not, disease is a modern concept. Academics now even call it “a modern construct” or “a modern invention,” but it’s real enough and always has been, and people who talk like that usually have their heads up their asses.
Monkeys are unlikely leading players in any important drama. We shall be discovering that leading players are an awfully big problem in life generally and with history in particular. And that many candidates for anything important are unlikely. Monkeys are even more of a problem because the ones you want are far away, hard to find, expensive to acquire and more expensive to maintain, and messy, very messy, to study.
Not many people work in monkeys and never have. It is not a calling that’s called.
Even after the plague arrives it will still be years before anyone notices monkeys. And it won’t be until almost the end of this history that their piss and shit will be studied (as Deep Throat literally begged be done at the beginning). Oh, a few scientists will make what other scientists will consider ridiculous claims about monkeys causing this and that. Scientists and their claims have always been ridiculed viciously by other scientists and their claims. Doctors call other doctors “crazy” all the time, so let’s get used to that right now. You’ll notice that scientist and doctor have just been used interchangeably. Nobody knows what to call themselves these days. Scientists treat patients and doctors work in laboratories. Doctor has become just another imprecise English word robbed of meaning and truth. Sort of like monkey itself.
America’s monkeys first appear in Florida, in an Everglades that must have looked much as it did in its empty beginnings in the Etrusticene era, in the midst of a lot of tall trees, mostly pines and erovonous deciduous maltreasons, which aren’t around anymore but look pretty much like pines. According to calculations from the National Bureau of Geographic Measurements and Standards, this southernmost part of America’s landmass is as old as America gets. Dr. Bosco Dripper also believes that you can’t get much older than this part of Florida. Many geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, paleoanthropologists, biologists, pathologists, geneticists, virologists, and just plain anthropologists don’t agree. There are so many different “ists” these days, one never achieves consensus. Everyone’s got his or her own pet “oldest” American everything.
Well, the Everglades is Dr. Dripper’s.
Though for the longest time no one thought to visit El Modesto to locate him, Dr. Dripper knows his monkeys better than anyone else knows his, or now her, monkeys. This is just a fact. Facts are as rare in medicine and in science as they are in history (or, for that matter, anywhere). They last only until the next fact comes along. However, no new fact has come along to lessen Dr. Dripper’s importance. Primatology is still not a calling that’s called. The current membership of the Primate Society totals thirtyseven, and most of them are women who refuse to work in the jungle. It is very hard to be a primatologist without working in a jungle. The few great ones rarely leave it.
In the middle of the jungle that still exists around El Modesto are several battered wooden buildings hidden in the scrub pines and palmettos and labeled El Modesto Estancia de los Monos Primate Holding Center, or as is painted on its gate, “Yaddah’s Monkey House.” How does he live such an isolated and lonely and solitary life in a Florida swamp without going nuts? Perhaps he has gone nuts and nobody’s noticed. Perhaps he was nuts all along. Craziness, as already indicated, has little to do with anything in either science or medicine and the crazies should always be listened to. You never know. It’s not generally known that Yaddah University traffics in monkeys. (Few are cognizant of Yaddah’s beginnings.) It’s not generally known that monkeys have rights now and are expensive to maintain, and Yaddah, ranked by Academic Health & Wealth the richest university in America, appears to be cutting a few too many corners in this laboratory so hidden from view.
Bosco Dripper, D.V.M., M.D., Ph.D., P.S., is America’s leading monkey doctor. For many years he was America’s only monkey doctor. A monkey doctor is correctly called a primatologist. Bosco has been a primatologist since 1940, when he received his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Yaddah Medical School, the first degree of this nature that Yaddah conferred, although primatology was not then a word in use and would not be until 1957, when monkeys finally became of sufficient interest to various cancer researchers to bequeath the study of them a name. It was then discovered that there were few primatologists, anywhere, a major hole in this country’s defense system against fatal diseases, and one reason we have so many of them (fatal diseases, not monkeys; we never have enough monkeys). This lack of primatologists persists, which is why Bosco is still considered America’s leading monkey doctor and why America still has so many fatal diseases. It would seem an easy lack to rectify until you learn about 1) the politics of monkeys and 2) “the animal model.” There are a lot of reasons why we continue to die in droves that have nothing to do with actual physical disease.
Dr. Dripper is a sad, disheveled, cranky man of indeterminate old age, who always wears a rumpled seersucker suit and a yellowed drip-dry shirt and a pale, limp, wrinkled, bespotted pink tie. Like almost everyone else in this country he is overweight. His eyes water constantly. As with all primatologists, a group that has yet to birth their Kluckhohn, their Lévi-Strauss, their Mead or Powdermaker, Dr. Dripper is little known. “Like the deepest secrets in a psychoanalysis, our lives stay hidden, harboring our precious information like a piece of decaying food behind a major molar in our country’s maw,” he has written. Dr. Dripper can be quite touchingly poetic.