By John Weir | NEW YORK – KM Soehnleins Army of Lovers is a novel of the lost generation. Not the generation of WWI survivors in the early 20th century whom Gertrude Stein called “lost” and whose stories were told in novels by Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf.
Soehnlein’s lost women and men, survivors and non-survivors are from the last two decades of the 20th centuryth Century, the so-called American Century, when nearly 750,000 Americans died from AIDS. Young Americans: Through 1994 and 1995, AIDS was the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 to 44.
In the center of Army of Lovers is a German-Irish guy from a suburb of New Jersey, a boy named Paul, fresh out of college, whose journey to adulthood happens to coincide with a global epidemic – “a damn plague,” Larry Kramer famously exclaimed – that might look to us so from the distance of forty years and a new century, like a bleak dress rehearsal for Covid.
That’s when your memory goes back that far. Soehnlein does, and his novel is a breathtaking act of remembrance. It’s a visceral recreation of the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of Manhattan from Wall Street to Times Square in the late 1980’s and early ’90’s. The bars, parks, restaurants, apartments. parties and sex parties. The meeting rooms where ACT UP New York met. The touch of friends and lovers and comrades, in street actions and crowded jail cells. The taste of ashes in your mouth, literally ashes, ashes of the dead.
If you were in New York at the time and even marginally involved with ACT UP New York, the novel will feel like a home video series. (Full Disclosure: I believe I once shared a prison cell with Soehnlein.) The story begins with a death. Soehnlein’s narrator Paul and his ACT UP collaborators lie on the floor of Albany’s Senate building, whose brutalist architecture is an apt symbol of “the brutal world we yell at, brutal and overbearing and indifferent. The government’s brutal indifference led us here to block the glass doors of the Legislative Chamber and demand to be heard.”
“That is a action‘ says Paul excitedly, looping his arm through the arm of his best friend Amanda. When his friend Derek, a member of ACT UP’s media committee, drops by with a reporter and a cameraman, Paul and Amanda deliver their quotes – “Women with AIDS die twice as fast as men” – and then wait for the police to close and arrest them. You wait a while.
With documentary clarity, Soehnlein reproduces the stop-and-start energy of political protest. Not only does he preserve for historical record an account of a series of actions and political interventions that took place forty years ago, he also shows what it was like to be there. His characters feel the adrenaline rush of entering a building guarded like a fortress. They hold hands, sometimes with strangers they will never see again, sometimes with lovers or ex-lovers. Rushing, singing, they head for the marble corridor or the train terminal floor or the cold, cold floor, afraid they can’t get past the police cordon or the phalanx of policemen.
And when they’ve “taken the hill,” so to speak, they wait like actors in a 1940s war movie. Wait for the police to arrive, for the senators to respond, for the reporters to arrive with camera crews to record their demands. And if they don’t get arrested, they’ll get home in time to see each other on the evening news. Or not!
Buy the book here: (Bywater Books)
It is exciting. Söhnlein shows the cheerfulness. It’s also a bit boring sometimes. He shows that too. Above all, it changed lives. The novel chronicles how activism and AIDS, as well as death and loss, transform Paul’s life. How he makes his way from a freshly outed gay kid navigating a city “full of offers” including art, work and men (his initial approach to sex and love is “Anything that starts with a man and with an orgasm ends is what I’m in”), to a queer activist with a shaved head and a black leather jacket who moderates ACT UP meetings and contradicts Larry Kramer.
A notable aspect of the novel is Soehnlein’s lack of sentimentality toward the anointed “heroes” of the AIDS activism movement. “I’m in awe of him,” says Paul about Kramer, but also: “Larry is the apocalyptic prophet who only sees doom. . . often unable to hear someone else.” Soehnlein sees the burnout problem of AIDS activists just as clearly:
racism and sexism that interfered with AIDS activism; the painful awareness of many ACT UP members, almost their inability to comprehend that their friends and lovers would continue to die despite their ceaseless, brilliant and fearless activism.
Most poignantly, the novel depicts an aspect of AIDS activism that I have not seen fully dramatized elsewhere. It happens in a conversation between Paul and his best friend Amanda, an aspiring filmmaker and lesbian activist. Dealing with the question of how to have a life at the same time you try to save Amanda says, “It’s confusing to identify so deeply with a community when you want to say something or do something that’s unique.”
How should one behave as a human being in the midst of an all-consuming, life-threatening epidemic? How can you be queer in America in the Reagan years? How can one live a personal life when one devotes one’s life to the collective? Amanda chooses art as a form of activism. Paul has a life away from AIDS, but it is no refuge from painful questions of mortality and identity. His mother is dying of cancer. The poles of his life are mirrored, each with death at the centre. Is he fully himself in one of two communities – the churchy suburban world he grew up in and the activist world centered around ACT UP and his charismatic friend Derek?
Paul walks away from ACT UP after breaking up with Derek and falling in love with Zack, who is dying of AIDS. “You’re the janitor now,” Amanda tells him. Paul almost seems to conclude that grooming itself is a form of activism. Or if not, what is activism? Amanda decides to channel her activism into “making a movie that affects a lot of people.” Paul comes to a similar decision. After Zack dies, he moves to San Francisco and enrolls in a graduate writing program.
Soehnlein seems to have made a similar choice. Army of Lovers is not just an account of political intervention, it is an intervention itself, a novel preserving for future activism the story of a group of people struggling to survive an epidemic in the face of a government that would have denied their existence.