Running in Bed by Jeffrey Sharlach is a book that I found very enjoyable despite certain reservations I will discuss later. As a gay man who like the main character Josh Silver came out in the 1970’s and was so impacted by the horror of AIDS, the storyline was both quite believable and fascinating. The tale begins with Josh, a recent young college graduate moving to Manhattan where he has accepted a position with a prestigious advertising firm. At this time he is still in denial that he is gay, just as I was until 1976. He seeks the help of a psychiatrist to “cure” him of his “illness” (check, only I went through that absurd effort in the 1960’s) but finally realizes the futility of his efforts. He initially takes a cautious approach to experimenting with his gay self but once he gets a taste of what it is like to walk on the wild side, he throws himself into it wholeheartedly (double check!). As the story continues Josh rapidly advances at his firm, has a very active and satisfying sex life and makes many friends, eventually even feeling comfortable coming out as a gay man at work. In 1978 while spending most of his weekends at Fire Island’s hip gay neighborhood The Pines, he meets and falls in love with a man named Tommy who is a popular call boy. Eventually they become a couple. Fast forward now to the summer of 1981 and the first reports in the New York Times of gay men diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, the disfiguring and at that point almost always fatal skin cancer. Although it would be several years before the acronym was used, this of course was the beginning of the AIDS pandemic that would take such a heavy toll on the gay male population in the USA in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The last third of the book deals with the growing horror of the disease as its impact grows steadily closer and closer to Josh and Tommy’s lives.
Anyone now over the age of 45 and who lived through the nightmarish dawning of AIDS knows just how scary that time was. Certainly as a subgroup, gay men and those close to them were especially susceptible to being in a constant state of fear. The author acknowledges losing both his partner and most of his friend to AIDS during that period and does a superb job portraying the pain and fear that he along with many of us had to bear during that dark period in our recent past. He begins his story at a time when gay men felt liberated, carefree, hopeful and yes safe living a hedonistic life, when it seemed that the worst consequence of being sexually active was a visit to the VD clinic. Sharlach very effectively transitions that world to the horrors and sadness of the 1980’s at the slow pace at which it actually occurred.
Why some who lived a life similar to Josh and Tommy survived and others did not will forever remain a mystery to me. Those who want to provide the simplistic explanation of some divine plan I believe are not only delusional but flat out offensive. To suggest that some omnipotent power gets up every day and after a couple of cups of Morning Joe goes through his/her list and decides, “this one I’ll let live; this one, nope” is as about as close to reality as the idea that Santa Claus decides who’s going to get ice skates and who’s going to get a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking. Just as wild fires destroy whole communities and somehow manage to not touch certain homes in their path, there is no rhyme or reason to any of it. Some of us despite countless times practicing what we now view as unsafe sex never became infected; others of us became infected and yet thirty or more years later are still alive and doing well. And of course far too many who were no more or less promiscuous or unworthy perished. It is a bizarre, sad but fascinating phenomenon that perhaps one day science will be able to explain.
The reservation I had about the book was that far too often I felt the author dumbed down the reader by explaining things that seemed all too obvious. While using historical facts and events is perfectly fine (I am doing that myself in the novel I am writing), explaining terms at length as though the reader had never heard of them was irritating. At times I felt like I was reading the transcript of a history lecture. A few examples: explaining the derivation and significance of the “Friends of Dorothy” code word for gays and lesbians; explaining the 1982 battle over the use of the word “Olympics” in what now is called the “Gay Games”; explaining T-4 cell count numbers to differentiate between an AIDS and ARC diagnosis. There were certainly other examples but the point I am making is that this was a work of fiction not a documentary so the repeated drum roll of explanations struck me as both unnecessary and annoying. I am sure that some readers may not be familiar with such terms and events but I suspect they are in a small minority of the book’s audience.
Despite that weakness I thought this was a good snapshot of life in gay America, especially big city gay America, during a critical 15 year period. Published in 2012, it was a quick and easy read and a journey I was glad to take.