Army of Lovers is an evocative title that might first bring to mind the tantalizing story of the Sacred Band of Thebes with its pairs of battle-hardened warriors in thigh-length kilts. K.M. Soehnlein’s latest novel is a much more recent work of historical fiction, but that title works well for his memoirish account of AIDS activism in New York City in the late 80s and early 90s. It also brings to mind the Swedish pop group of the same name whose campy hits were playing in gay bars far and wide at the time. Soehnlein’s principal reference is the men and women who fought against AIDS apathy and hatred side-by-side, as friends, lovers and caretakers at the height of the pandemic.
The storyline chronicles the early years of ACT UP from an engaging on-the-ground perspective. Soehnlein brings the reader right inside the passionate and sometimes contentious meetings of the fledgling organization and demonstrates how such gatherings served multiple, vital purposes, including and beyond AIDS advocacy. For some gay men, attending a meeting was a first foray seeking connection with others of their kind and overcoming shame. For others, ACT UP was practically the only place where AIDS information could be found while a public health response wallowed in opposing political tides. The men and women of Soehnlein’s novel find lifelong friendships through their participation in the organization, bonded together not only by shared anger and fear, but also humor and bravery and creativity. Some find partners, others cruise for sex, and most movingly, they create a caretaking network for men who have been shunned by their families and society.
Meetings get messy at times from conflicting priorities and the exhaustion of fighting for a government response while friends are dying every day. The political actions, several of which will be familiar to readers, are depicted with all the triumph, frustration and personal danger one would expect. Demonstrations halt Manhattan traffic, draw media attention, and gradually succeed in accelerating the distribution of life-saving drugs. Seen through the eyes of the people who led them, they were also precarious and at times chaotic and often ended with activists, including those in very poor health, getting beaten by police batons. It’s hard to read at times, but stirring in its complexity.
While the novel is the story of a political movement, it’s also quite a personal story about love. The narrator Paul is a recent college graduate who is part of ACT UP’s core leadership along with his lover Derek. Paul and Derek have an open relationship that is struggling to stay within the bounds of trust and honesty. Derek begins to spend more time with a handsome, spiritual man from the South, Michael, and Paul is drawn to a young, biracial artist Zack. One sees how this would be a sticky situation in any circumstances, and Paul and Derek are also figuring out how to be with men of different serostatuses and dealing with a friend group that’s in constant crisis, from declining health to depression and suicide to gay bashings on the supposedly safe streets of the West Village. The author captures brilliantly the many moods of gay living in NYC post-Stonewall and pre-anti-retroviral therapies: the thrill of sexual rebellion, private jealousies, and the ceaseless fear of death.
This is a novel with incredibly high stakes, so while it’s lengthy, it’s difficult to turn away from the pages, and by the end, difficult to forget. On a broad level, it raises questions like “who will survive an unmitigated epidemic?” and later: “how did anyone of that generation survive the constant trauma?” The personal stakes are equally profound and gripping. Will Paul test positive like so many of his peers? Will he ever find inner peace and the sense of home he desperately wants? Or will he succumb to self-destruction like so many of his friends? Soehnlein reminds us of the brutality of an era many years before the availability of effective HIV treatments and the (partial) realization of LGBTQ+ civil rights. He also teaches us how hope and community are possible even at our most powerless moments.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters