Bywater Books, long a publisher of lesbian and feminist fiction and narrative non-fiction, is beginning an imprint dedicated to writers of color and to writers across the broader queer continuum. The inaugural book from the Amble Press imprint will be As if Death Summoned by Alan E. Rose, a powerful novel about dying—and therefore by extension, living.
The novel begins with an incident known as the Mt Bogong Tragedy. In August of 1936, three men attempted the first winter crossing of the Bogong High Plains, a vast plateau in the Victorian Alps, some 150 miles north of Melbourne. Caught in a blizzard, only two of the men survived the experience: the third, Cleve Cole, died from exposure. When his body was found, an aborigine woman called Black Mary said, “They brought back only his body.” In subsequent years, hikers walking in the region would report seeing a lone figure, who would vanish when approached.
From there, the novel jumps forward to February of 1995, where an unnamed Narrator returns to Portland, Oregon to hold vigil in a hospital while a friend is dying. During his overnight stay at the hospital, in a series of intertwined flashbacks, we learn more about the Mt Bogong Tragedy, the Narrator’s prior twelve months as a mental health specialist at the Columbia AIDS Project (CAP), and about his ten-year relationship with his lover Gray in Australia immediately preceding his return to the Pacific Northwest—as well as the real reason for the hospital vigil. In many respects, the Narrator is a modern-day Cleve Cole: only his body has returned to Portland. Before the novel begins, he has already performed more than thirty of these hospital vigils, and he is beyond burned out (when he applies to work at the CAP, he has to reassure the rest of the staff that he himself is not suffering from AIDS, because he looks so physically unwell). Over the course of the novel, he learns how to connect to people, how to love again—in short, how to live.
Initially, I have to confess that I was not expecting to enjoy this novel. Haven’t we all read enough AIDS novels already? Do we really need another one? But once I started, I couldn’t put it down. Rose’s novel retells the early days of the AIDS pandemic in Australia and the States during the 80s and 90s, a time when being diagnosed with HIV meant one’s death was imminent. In an introduction, Rose notes the striking differences and similarities between the AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics: in particular, the amount of misinformation, and denial, and especially governmental disregard and how they have played into the spread of both diseases. Moreover, the very human need for connection with others will always hamper any attempts to halt the spread of a contagious disease.
At the end of the novel, the Narrator states:
I recalled my first conversation with Cal, almost one year ago, and his odd statement, how fortunate we were to have been part of this. Part of an epidemic? No, he meant fortunate to have been part of humanity rising up to its noblest and best in meeting a modern plague, fortunate to have witnessed so much courage and compassion, so much grace and dignity, so much self-sacrifice and love. And humor! Undying humor in the face of death. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he said.
And in that moment, I realized, neither would I.
While I can not say that I have reached that level of acceptance/serenity/whatever concerning the AIDS pandemic (much less the current Covid-19 pandemic), I can honestly say that I would not have missed reading his novel.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske