Being heard matters terribly to Kramer now. (Listening to others is harder; he wears expensive hearing aids that sometimes get misplaced and must be protected from the curious palate of his dog, Charlie.) Temperamentally unsuited to ceding the pulpit, he has never accepted the national gay organizations as competent advocates for gay people, and, in the wake of New York’s failure to pass a same-sex-marriage law, can only repeat his contention that state-by-state incrementalism on such matters is “a waste of time.” If it depresses him, that’s because it’s personal: “I can’t afford to wait for gay marriage in ten years!” he moans. “Unless something radically changes, I won’t be able to leave my estate in any sensible way to David, and everything we built up together suddenly won’t be there to support him. That’s criminal.”
Depression wasn’t so much a problem back in the days of his AIDS activism, when he was “operating on all cylinders.” The posture of opposition cured him, if temporarily, of the anomie and drift that had defined his awful childhood (bullying father, unprotective mother) and young adulthood (he tried to commit suicide during his freshman year at Yale). After his glamorous but unfulfilling movie career (mostly spent in London) and a big flop Off Broadway in 1975, he was happy to be fully occupied with AIDS. “It was a euphoric feeling: to be useful, to not have enough hours in the day,” he says. “And I came to realize that I had been given this, like a reporter who gets parachuted behind enemy lines and gets his first big story. I was the one left alive to tell it.”
But now that there isn’t any political issue he “wants to get in on or that wants me to get in on it,” what story can he tell?
Welcome to Larry Kramer’s Third Act.
At the moment, The American People towers high on a desk that has overtaken his book-lined living room. From a simple insight, it has grown to some 4,000 pages. “Ronald Reagan kept making speeches about ‘the American people,’ ” he says, “and it totally pissed me off because his American people didn’t include me or us. So that’s the name of the book, but it’s the gay American people.”
Kramer is stingy with details, perhaps because the book beggars description: a screed that swallowed a history, or vice versa; the combination further swallowing parts of Kramer’s oeuvre (Faggots and The Normal Heart are embedded in their entirety); the whole thing framed as a tale, complete with villains, heroes, and something like a plot. Whatever it is (he grudgingly calls it a novel, for legal reasons), he believes it to be an entirely true work. Certainly it’s epic. From primordial Florida swamps to the homophilic colony at Jamestown to Lincoln’s male love and the “holocaust” of AIDS, he reframes the country as a gay creation, culminating with the advent of modern antiviral drugs: “the single greatest achievement that gay people have accomplished in history.”
If the drugs were gay people’s masterpiece, he clearly intends this book to be his. How any publisher will produce it (in several volumes? As an e-book?) is not Kramer’s immediate concern, though Schwalbe hopes they can cut about 20 percent, and polish the rest, by 2011. In any case, what interests Kramer now is getting it done while he’s still healthy, and then getting it read. It’s not an intellectual exercise. He has a messianic need to show the world, especially but not only the gay world, how much it has lost to the bowdlerizing of history. Indeed, when I ask Schwalbe what previous work the book reminds him of, he immediately says Moby-Dick: “strange, visionary, moral, questing, and also filled with fascinating and odd digressions.” Not to mention an authorial stand-in who is part all-seeing Ishmael and part maniacal Ahab.
“It’s not some suburban novel,” Schwalbe adds. “It’s a history of evil in America from the dawn of time, and I don’t mean bad upbringings but real evil: malefaction. And it’s a history of gay people from the dawn of time. The denouement is when evil attacks gay openly, in full force—and the cataclysmic effect that has.”
Though The American People includes controversial sections set in worlds and times Kramer has himself experienced, it is his “queering” of beloved historical figures that will surely get the most attention. “His idea of history is that everyone was gay: Joe Louis, De Gaulle, anybody,” jokes Kramer’s friend and Yale classmate Calvin Trillin. With Lincoln, at least, Kramer isn’t alone; recent academic studies, and articles in the popular press, have debated the nature of Lincoln’s feelings for his roommate Joshua Speed, with whom he shared a bed for four years and a loving correspondence thereafter. But Kramer says he has new evidence, including details of other male lovers, that expands on accounts that first came to light when a diary and stash of letters were supposedly found under the floorboards of a building in which Lincoln and Speed lived together. Even so, what he writes about other famous names in American history will, he advertises, prove “far more stomach-turning” to the masses.