Bay Area Reporter

Navigating the age of AIDS by Brian Bromberger

Sally Field Can Play the Transsexual, or, I Was Cursed By Polly Holliday by Leslie L. Smith; PressLess, $18.50

Any gay man over 40 should look back with astonishment over the enormous social changes that have occurred over the last 35 years, from ostracism to a gay Holocaust to legal same-sex marriage. Sally Field Can Play the Transsexual charts this remarkable journey, though its heart lies in the AIDS era of the late 1980s to mid-90s. While written as a first- person narrative, it is really a memoir revealing how AIDS has permanently altered LGBT lives, sexuality, and culture during the last quarter-century. According to the press release, SFCPT is "the first novel to address the game-changing but controversial regimens of PrEP and PEP." It also focuses on such relevant concerns as barebacking and rising HIV infections, and makes connections between grief, PTSD, and survivor's guilt for those who outlasted AIDS, including the author himself, HIV+ at 20. The fact that Smith can mold all these issues into a lucid, heart-rending portrait is a testament to his narrative skills.

SFCPT is foremost a meditation on loss and mourning, and a redemptive trek towards emotional maturity. David Matthews is a gay male escort who escapes the horrors of small-town Arkansas at 16. He flees to New York City, where he encounters Robert Jeffers, a successful magazine publisher who becomes David's mentor after profiling him in a sympathetic article, and later dies of AIDS. David begins a seven-year grieving process, and copes with the small fortune, high-rise apartment, and luxury beach house left to him by Robert so he can start a new life free of hustling (though he continues to ply his trade). The inventive book title derives from David, having few to no memories of his childhood, casting movie stars in his imagination to play key people who enter his life. But the centerpiece of the novel is David's return to his family home in Arkansas to visit his dying mother, his abusive father, and estranged younger sister Carol. David has a bizarre traveling companion, the garrulous ghost of Robert Jeffers (a gay version of a kinder, gentler Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol). While supportive of David, Robert confronts him on issues like love, intimacy, and risky sexual behavior. This trip will also lead David to understand why he became an escort, though the reason borders on a cliche. As he finds his role in the world, David encounters colorful characters, including a compassionate Christian transsexual nurse.

The book explores how to navigate sex in the age of HIV in a subdivided community that has seemingly lost the ability to care for each other. The sex in the novel, though graphic and candid, is often hilarious in a chilling vein. SFCPT deals with heavy subjects in a brave manner. Had the book ended with his reintegration into the land of the living, SFCPT would be a triumph. But Smith is determined to conclude the book with a cheerleading pep talk on the glories of PrEP. "All I could think was there was a drug that could prevent the spread of HIV. AIDS didn't have to exist, but how do you tell a world that feels safe with its decades-old safe-sex guidelines that all of its assumptions are wrong? How do you do that without drowning people in data?" Putting aside the debate over whether this didactic tract belongs here, the argument is one-sided. I couldn't help but recall Aldous Huxley's warning in his dystopian novel Brave New World of how drugs will regulate all our behaviors. In its denouement, SFCPT degenerates into a handbook on HIV preventative treatment options, which dilutes the humorous, transformative pilgrimage we have undertaken with David. It's a shame, because most of the book is an irresistible page-turner that's inspirational without becoming treacly, while recalling that losses to AIDS still have no closure. I wish Smith had opted to write a separate nonfiction book on how the LGBT community has forgotten the lessons of the AIDS epidemic, and what the most effective preventative tools (pro and con) are, based on personal choice. However disappointing the last few pages, they do not derail this poignant exploration of the impulses of gay men treading the sometimes treacherous waters of AIDS, still casting its dark shadows over the way we live and love.