AIDS as it was, as it has been

By Philip Dean Walker
Squares & Rebels
98 pages, $15.99


AIDS nostalgia fuels Philip Dean Walker’s Better Davis and Other Stories. This is not to mean a sentimental longing for the return of a time when the epidemic cusped in the early 80s, but rather a writer’s skillful reconstruction of the painful appearance of the scourge forty years ago this past summer, with its deep, permanent impact.
The book consists of deceivingly open-ended vignettes. If the reader has paid close attention to the evolution of HIV in the past forty years, the inconclusive nature of the episodes is illusory. The characters in most of the stories are fictionalized well-known figures of the artistic world, all somehow connected to the epidemic. Walker injects anecdotal information about each character that may or not be factual, but in any event sounds like a plausible reconstruction of the direct or indirect effect of the illness on individuals. A scene from a day in the life of Natalie Wood, for example, includes references to her involvement in the original production of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, whose stage and film casts were impacted by AIDS, with additional allusions to suspected closeted men. Other subjects include: Jim Bullock, of Too Close for Comfort fame; Elizabeth Taylor, whose subsequent role in funding research and services for the afflicted is universally acknowledged; Air Canada flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas, reputed to be “Patient Zero”; Michael Bennett, award-winning Broadway director of A Chorus Line. The setting stretches from coast to coast across the United States  
Besides the obvious keen eye for selecting colorful and believable characters for the plots, Walker’s storytelling compels the reader to follow as he artfully blends the sadly tragic with irony and humorous strokes that in someone else’s hands could have become ghoulish or distasteful. Such is the case of the character for whom the book is titled, a drag queen who impersonates Bette Davis and whose guidance one of the characters should have followed to avoid falling for the wrong man. As the narrator assumes Michael Bennett’s point of view, he states, “Life is an only vaguely connected series of scenes and interactions with other players…” That is precisely what Walker presents us, replacing the vague for the strikingly palpable, and we are thankful that he does. He allows us to peep into a captivating kaleidoscope that he holds and turns abruptly, no judgment, only a representation of life as it was and could have been just before and during the crisis.  
Joseph Delgado is a writer, former professor of literature and linguistics at the University of Minnesota and a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly‘s Spanish edition.

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