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The American People: Larry Kramer saves us from the heterosexual historians


The American People: Larry Kramer saves us from the heterosexual historians

On a streetcar near midnight, the man in front of me turns and asks what I am reading. His rheumy eyes register no recognition of the title nor of  the author, but his query has just been an icebreaker. I want to get back to my reading because Larry Kramer's The American People Volume 1 Search For My Heart A Novel is even lengthier than its title. Despite its weight and size, I am carrying it everywhere so that I can dive in and surrender to its hypnotic power whenever I have a spare minute. Not the most efficient way to tackle a novel that requires a certain amount of concentration but, at 777 pages, The American People is too much for one sitting. 

"Are you Jewish?" asks the man, eerily echoing one of The American People's major thematic concerns.

"One sixteenth on my father's side," I reply.

"The rest is Irish isn't it?"

"Partially," I start to reply before being interrupted as he launches into an animated story of his own. It begins with "When I was in Boston dating the babysitter of the Kennedys . . ." before slandering Marilyn Monroe, dissecting Israel's politics, offering proof of several conspiracy theories, speculating flirtatiously about my sexuality, and warning of the inevitable rise of the religious right. He gesticulates wildly, pulling at his shock of white hair and waving his arms as his voice alternates between a fervent desperate whisper and an angry shout. There is so much to be said, attention must be paid. He is The American People come to life.

The American People is ostensibly a history of the United States as seen through the eyes of those who are usually excluded when the phrase "The American People" is invoked. It is also a history of AIDS, referred to as the "underlying condition." The retrovirus is one of the many narrators but not the one who complains to the writer,

I am annoyed to note that you believe that almost everybody is either a homosexual or a repressed homosexual or a homophobe. Is this what your history of The American People is to be?

Yes it is. According to Kramer, all the presidents of the United States were gay, most historical figures were gay, any writer of any note was gay, Hitler was gay, just about everyone was, is, gay. Kramer attempting to balance against the injustice of a biased academic world, cries,

God save us from the heterosexual historian!

This is The American People's biggest strength and it's most disappointing weakness. Gay history is woefully under-represented and it is thrilling to read that Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were gay. That historically this has been speculated gives Kramer some validity. But if Kramer does not have a source, or a fact, at his disposal, he gleefully invents one. This is not the definitive gay revisionist history we've all been waiting for, this is "A Novel." 

Kramer is trying to get at the truth, his truth, by bending history to his needs. When it works - I was unaware that the United States created eugenics concentration camps for gays that were the inspiration for the Nazis (I googled to make sure it wasn't one of Kramer's inventions) - it is exhilarating, when it strays too far into fantasy - did John Wilkes Booth really have an abnormally large and bent by Peyronie's disease penis to the point that it tore about Lincoln's rectum? - it is frustrating. 

The American People is as maddening as it is magnificent. Bravura passages alternate with confusingly overwritten rants. Multiple narrators, though all using Kramer's stylistic and linguistic quirks, tell their tales to the ostensible writer, Fred Lemish from Kramer's previous novel, 1978's Faggots. Reams of scatological faux-academic and medical histories alternate with gothic fairy tales and bitter railing against greedy real estate tycoons and humanity's inhumanity before blossoming, 524 pages in, into a coming of age story that would be a brilliant novel all on its own. And then Kramer performs the extraordinary feat of tying hundreds of characters and narratives and narrators and ideas together, stitches them into the sudden storyline, and sets everything up for the second volume (Volume 1 only gets as far as the 1940s and Kramer undoubtedly has much to express about gay life from the repressive '50s through Stonewall and AIDS). 

The American People is sprawling, messy, heartbreaking, infuriating, lyrical, obsessed with bodily fluids and shit, asylums and aphrodisiacs, packed with sex and violence and penises, and impossible to put down. Kramer has so much to say, attention must be paid.