Larry Kramer’s The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart has drawn as much praise as it has criticism.
It is the first in a planned trilogy by the iconic American author and activist. Some critics claim the book is sure to become a new “American classic.” Others wonder whether the novel’s gargantuan size and impenetrable prose merit its phenomenal praise. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “consistently frustrating” as Kramer’s sprawling and incendiary story is weighed down by verbose backstories and a litany of characters who come and go. In The New Yorker, David Leavitt said we must “celebrate… the nerve” of The American People whether or not we value the stylistic and literary merit of the entire volume.
One thing everyone can agree on is that AIDS activist Larry Kramer has spent a lifetime using his voice loudly and unapologetically.
Since his debut novel Faggots in 1978, Kramer has made important contributions to the artistic and creative identity of gay men both before and after the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. His voice has been perhaps the strongest of all queer activists across the twentieth-century in petitioning the advancement and de-stigmatisation of gay men in America. Kramer’s iconic play The Normal Heart (1985) has been a source of hope and solace for many gay men who lost their loved ones, friends, and families during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Its depiction of the horror, pain, and tragedy that destroyed much of the gay community in the 1980s and 1990s has recirculated lately, thanks to the recent Ryan Murphy TV adaptation.
But Kramer is also responsible for some problematic writing including The Tragedy of Today’s Gays (2005), which did much to alienate younger gay men who were coming of age in the post-AIDS world. The book explores the failures of many gay men today to be more involved in gay politics. Kramer asserts that the gay community is becoming increasingly complacent and lax when it comes to sex. While the major American presses praised The Tragedy of Today’s Gays—including the Washington Post, which called it “a sprawling polemic, a call to action, angry, frustrated, passionate”—Kramer also estranged many gay men who saw his book as offensive, antiquated and out-of-touch. One young Salon writer observed that Kramer has “to have a lot anger with the young gay population.”
As for his latest work, Kramer has proudly stated that The American People has been a lengthy and laborious project, something he has written over the last forty years. To put it simply, the message of Kramer’s mammoth novel is that gay men have always been around throughout the history of civilisation. Long before the establishment of “queer theory” in the 1990s, long before the devastation wrought by the HIV/AIDS crisis, and even long before the term “homosexual,” gay men have always been with us. Kramer reintroduces us to the protagonist of Faggots, Fred Lemish, as we trek through Kramer’s history of America queerly revised.
Kramer begins his gay history with a band of prehistoric monkeys. These are “The First American People,” and they “eat each other.” Kramer says that he begins from this point because “monkey” is an “imprecise, meaningless, inoffensive word,” and because histories of America typically begin with historic figures and not with the “imprecise, meaningless.” This is presumably a nod to the lack of representation of gay men have had in American arts and in history itself. With this sweeping and hyperbolic gesture—starting the famed and mythic history down in the shit with monkeys eating other each—Kramer tells his reader that gay men have been long been treated like monkeys: hated, lower-caste, barbaric, unhuman. But we were there from the beginning.
Fred Lemish leaves the picture after the first 10 pages of the novel, making way for Kramer to introduce the “Condition” (HIV/AIDS) as the focal point of The American People. His searing and percussive prose locates the history of the Condition in the backstories of the gay elite who pepper American history—including Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth with his “bent” penis—and Ivy Leaguers trying to exterminate “homosexuals” in the 20th century.
Like the classic 1848 novel Vanity Fair by William Thackeray, The American People is biblical in style and scope. Kramer is often preoccupied with superfluousness. His narrator intervenes regularly. But unlike Vanity Fair, Kramer’s book uses postmodern techniques such as the fragmentation of time and place, truth as a subjective ideal, and the reappropriation of high and low, new and old, good and bad together. Like an encyclopaedist, Kramer demarcates his book into satirical vignettes, which truly chart not so much the history of America but the history of AIDS. Kramer uses allegory to assert that HIV/AIDS is not a manifestation of twentieth-century “sin” channelled through gay men, as enemies of the LGBT community would have it, but that HIV/AIDS is actually the manifestation of the centuries of persecution that gay men have weathered in America. Much like a Thomas Pynchon book, The American People cannot be enjoyed in a “straight” line—pardon the pun. The narrative is confusing, discontinuous, and disruptive. Kramer has constructed a “queer” narrative with its own continuity.
The American People is a loud and necessary intervention into gay America’s history. It may be last of a book of its kind—from a leading gay activist and archivist of twentieth-century gay America. Not many people like Larry Kramer are around. But I hope that The American People won’t be the last of its kind.
– Nathan Smith is a freelance writer and graduate student based in Melbourne Australia. His writing has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and The Millions. Nathan maintains a website at nathanrsmith.org and tweets at @nathansmithr.