Ungeminnt

In The Trion Syndrome, I used the German word Ungemmint because we have no equivalent word in English. The term means both unloving and unloved. It’s a quality born of evil which has no understanding of love.

The protagonist of Trion, Dave Bell, a German scholar, applies the term to himself without knowing why. For reasons he can’t remember, he thinks he has lost his soul. Something happened while he was serving in Vietnam; he doesn’t remember what.

I used the concept of Ungeminnt because it describes my own feeling about myself. For me, many things happened during the thirteen years I was in and out of Vietnam. In the beginning, I couldn’t remember some of them. Later they came back to me, sometimes in dreams. I knew that if I ever wanted to be free of being haunted, I had to bring those events into my conscious memory, face them, and learn to live with them. I had, in effect, to get my soul back.

For me and for Dave, my protagonist, it’s a life-long struggle. Dave is helped by his son. I’m helped by my writing. In telling Dave’s story, I confront my own past and find the remnants of peace.

Gay Men at Their Best

As mentioned yesterday, gay men are like all men, but the AIDS epidemic with its certainty of death for those stricken brought out the worst and the best in the gay community. Yesterday, I told of unseemly behavior. Today I want to talk about heroism and generosity.

As a buddy, I was assigned to a group that met once a month to talk and give each other moral support. I was the only straight man of the eight in the group. The group leader was a man of charisma who urged us to vent to each other, hang in there, and keep on giving. He was one of the few of us who contracted AIDS from his patient—he accidentally stuck himself with a needle after giving his patient an injection—and died several years later. He was the model for Mort in No-Accounts.

Mort is a buddy, now caring for his sixth patient, and a leader of buddies to whom Martin, the straight buddy, turns for help and reassurance. Mort lost his lover to AIDS and then devoted his life to helping those with the disease. He helps Martin get through his frustration at the shenanigans of his patient and bolsters him to face the oncoming death. Here’s a fragment of their conversation:

Martin wanted to weep. “They should get Peter another buddy. I can’t stand to be with him. I can’t stand to see him getting sicker, day after day . . .”

“Would Peter care if they assigned somebody else?”

“I don’t know. He depends on me. He asked me to be with him when he dies.”

“He must love you.”

End of quote. Mort in his wisdom knows that Peter needs Martin. In the end, he persuades Martin to go on caring for Peter.

I chose Mort’s name carefully. “Mort” means death.

 

Gay Men at Their Worst

During my years of caring for gay men dying of AIDS, I saw the gay community from the inside. For the most part, gay men are like all men, neither better nor worse. But the AIDS epidemic with its threat of certain death brought out qualities which otherwise would have been left dormant. I saw great heroism and generosity—I’ll speak of that in later posts. But I also saw cowardice and its consequence, ignobility.

Part of the source was, I believe, the built-in frustration of being gay. As some gay men told me in their most open moments as they approached death, they hated being gay but couldn’t escape it.

In No-Accounts, I describe a scene I witnessed more than once when a man stricken with AIDS meets with his former admirers who now pull away from him. Peter, the gay protagonist, had been at his pinnacle in the gay community. He was tall and handsome with a handful of followers who idolized him. He persuades Martin, his straight buddy, to take him to a gay bar to meet with three of his fans. Martin senses the underlying tension in the three men and their discomfort at being with Peter now facing death from AIDS. The following is the conclusion of the scene:

The conversation continued headlong. Kirk, Joey, and Ron got into competitive bar-hopping anecdotes, a can-you-top-this contest. Something phony was going on. The three were too dithery, too jubilant. Martin’s gut tightened.

More drinks arrived. Peter was flushed. He was frowning and slurring his words. He no longer joined in the laughter. Ron, Joey, and Kirk partied on.

They don’t know what a good time is, my dear,” Joey was saying. “They wouldn’t know a rush if they met one running bare-ass naked down the street.” Kirk guffawed. Peter glared.

“And that,” Ron said unnaturally deep in his voice, “is why they call us gay, big boy.”

“Gay?” Peter said, his voice raw, his face red.

“Gayer than thou, honey,” Kirk said. He poked Peter in the stomach and made a face at Ron. Hoots of laughter.

Peter gulped his wine. “Gay? Holy Jesus . . .”

Still smiling, Kirk turned back to Peter with a questioning look.

Peter slammed his glass on the table. Wine sloshed. “We’re not the gays,” he said though his teeth. “We’re the shit of the earth, biological errors, mutants, at the genetic end of the line, with no hopes, no dreams, no salvation. Big fucking mistakes. God, we can’t even reproduce.”

The laughter died.

End of quote. Martin takes Peter home. Peter is crushed by what has happened. It’s his last visit to a gay bar.

Laughing with AIDS Patients

Between 1985 and 1990, I was a “buddy”—a helper and caretaker but not a medical care specialist—for seven gay AIDS patients, all of whom died. As I reported earlier, I volunteered because I couldn’t stand watching men die in the streets because no one would care for them. I did everything for my patients—fed them, bathed them, dressed and undressed them, took them out when they were up to it, took them to medical appointments, and, in effect, helped them die.

When you’re on such an intimate footing with people, you get to know them well. I ended up loving all my patients, even the cantankerous ones and the prima donnas. And don’t kid yourself; there are an awful lot of prima donnas among gay men.

What happened with all of them was that the imminence of death became second nature. We accepted it as a given and lived as best as we could in its shadow. We came to speak of death casually, a part of life that was inevitable. One result was that my patients and I often laughed together.

A good many of the gay men I met during my years of caring for AIDS patients showed a genius for humor. They knew intuitively what would make me laugh. And I learned what would bring a smile to their faces.

That escape into humor shows up in the pages of No-Accounts. I quote below the scene on Christmas day when Martin, the buddy, has been out shopping for Christmas dinner for Peter, the patient now permanently in a hospital bed, and Roger, his father. Peter, ever the prima donna, had told Martin he was in the mood for something cosmopolitan. He proposed south American food.

Martin breezed through the door to the apartment, his arms filled with brown bags, his muffler trailing behind him. “Mission accomplished. I feel like Scrooge visiting Bob Cratchit.”

“You look more like the ghost of Christmas past,” Peter said. “You realize how long you’ve been gone? A man could starve to death around here.”

“Peter, cut it out,” Roger said.

“Let the hell cat warble,” Martin said, all grins. “If he’s not good, we’ll crank up both ends of his bed and let him practice being the letter U.”

“You’re certainly full of yourself,” Peter said with unconvincing ill humor. “What did you get, a Chilean luau to go?”

“Better than that. An Ethiopian formal dinner for four.”

Ethiopian? That’s not South American.”

“It’s not? Never was very good at geology.”

“Geography,” Peter corrected.

“Told you I wasn’t any good at it. Anyway, the Eritrean in the restaurant assured me that it was very cosmopolitan to eat Ethiopian food on Christmas.”

When Readers Know the Ending

In two of my four novels, readers know how the story will end.

In No-Accounts, one of the two protagonists is a gay man with AIDS. It’s 1985. Readers will remember that a diagnosis of AIDS in 1985 was a death warrant. So readers expect that the story will end with the death of one of the protagonists.

In Last of the Annamese, the story begins in Saigon in November 1974. Readers know that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. The ending is known at the beginning of the novel.

In my other two novels, Friendly Casualties and The Trion Syndrome, the ending of the story comes as a surprise. As a novelist, I was able to use suspense as one tool in the fictionist’s toolbox.

So do No-Accounts and Last of the Annamese work as novels? Readers tell me they do. Why?

My sense is the answer is twofold.

First, both novels do have suspense.

In No-Accounts¸ the questions are: will Peter, the gay man with AIDS, accept help from a conventional, straight, and rather slow-thinking “buddy”? Will Martin, the buddy, have the fortitude and generosity to stay with Peter to the end?

In Last of the Annamese, the question is: who will escape at the end? Will the two principal Vietnamese characters, Thanh and Tuyet, survive? Will the American characters understand that the end is at hand and flee?

But I believe that the success of all four novels springs from a different aspect: all four are literary fiction. I haven’t found a definition of literary fiction that I find satisfying. To me, literary fiction explores the human condition and how human beings cope with it. I’m deeply concerned with how we humans mate, bear our children, and face death. What values drive us? What are the priorities in human life? Can love and generosity overcome self-interest and the drive to acquire? What is courage? What is love? What is honor?

Annamese illustrates my approach in a way that is more easily explained than in my other novels. The story is told from multiple points of view. Each major character is dominated by goals and desires radically different from the others. Each has to make decisions about his or her own survival that has both costs and payoffs. To my way of thinking, each of the characters demonstrates nobility and ultimately decides with honor how to deal with the cataclysmic ending, the fall of Saigon.

I write for a number of reasons addressed at various places in this blog, but the most important is to delve into the human condition and offer the reader ways of thinking and examples of how people cope with the life we are given.

That’s why, to me, fiction is great art.

Death by AIDS

Some readers find my focus on the brutal aspects of life disturbing enough that they stop reading my work. I deliberately delineate the grisly aspects of war (Last of the Annamese, The Trion Syndrome) and detail the grim facts of death by AIDS (No-Accounts). These are features of the life I have lived, experiencing combat at the side of American soldiers and Marines and helping AIDS patients die with dignity.

In No-Accounts, I made no effort to disguise or avoid the hideous symptoms that AIDS inflicts on the human body. I show the straight “buddy” of the story, Martin, shocked and sickened as he watches Peter, the gay man afflicted with AIDS, succumb to the disease. I went through it myself as I witnessed the way that AIDS kills. I describe the body rashes, fatigue, diarrhea, ulcers, nausea, and opportunistic diseases like pneumonia as the immune system fails. Then comes Kaposi’s sarcoma, deforming red and purple lesions on the skin and within the body.

Why enumerate the ugly facts of combat and AIDS? Because I want people to know. A tiny fraction of 1 percent of Americans have faced combat; the vast majority of Americans have never seen a person with AIDS. Maybe if we’re aware at the conscious level of the gruesome consequences of war and disease, we’ll do more to move against both.

Straight Men and Gay Men

No-Accounts, my novel telling the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS, is told in two points of view. One is Martin, the straight, divorced, middle-aged care-giver, called a “buddy” to distinguish him from medical staff. The other is his AIDS patient, Peter, thirty-one, a handsome former dancer.

I wrote the story from both a straight and gay point of view because I wanted to contrast the worldviews.

Martin’s viewpoint was my own. I ascribed to him the blunders I made as I learned my way around the gay world taking care of men dying of AIDS. I describe him explaining to other volunteers, as I did over and over, that he’s not gay. He is, after all, the only straight buddy in the group, just as I was.

Peter’s outlook on life was much more difficult, but during the five years I cared for men dying of AIDS, I had spent so many hours talking to gay men about everything from the price of toothpaste to what might come after death that I felt that I knew how they felt.

Gay men who have read No-Accounts tell me I got it right. They are impressed that a straight man could ever grasp their perspective. I’m grateful for the insights they gave me with trust and generosity.