I set out to write a gay novel about alcoholism, and when I completed it and then couldn’t get it published, I put it in a box on the floor at the back of my closet. It eventually was moved to my first computer, and then moved from computer to computer. The editor who had rejected it had suggested that I try other publishers—these decisions were inevitably subjective, he said—but I was discouraged by the fact that two of my books had already been rejected, so I never sent it out again. It stayed on the floor of my closet and on my computer while I wrote Race Point Light and Adam in the Morning, and while I published Ceremonies, and Race Point Light and Adam in the Morning. Finally, after the three books were published as ebooks and as print-on-demand books, my daughter asked me what I had done with Winter Rain, which she had read shortly after I completed it. So, 28 years after I had written it, I read it again. When I wrote it, I was intent on capturing the sense of helplessness that often accompanies late-stage alcoholism. I had been frustrated by the inability of other recovering alcoholics to capture how it felt to be unable to stop drinking.
Around the time I was thinking about this book, I saw an article in the Boston Globe about a police car found on the street in a town north of Boston. Nearby was a body of a man who had been hit by a car. He was dead. Investigation showed that the man had been killed by the car. What was not clear was who had driven the car. He or she was not found, and there was no evidence linking the owner of the car to the car. This story ran for several days in the Globe, and I was struck by the horror of being the owner of the car—who was said to be a state policeman—and to have been too drunk to know whether he himself had driven his own car at that moment. In the following weeks, the state and the city police mounted intense studies into the question of who had driven the car at the moment the car killed the man. There were no witnesses who could identify the driver, and the owner of the car was in blackout, apparently.
About the same time, psychologists and psychiatrists were leading patients to believe that symptoms could lead a therapist to determine whether a patient had been sexually abused. I knew of people accused of sexual abuse who asked, When was I supposed to have done this? and were told, I don’t know. My therapist tells me that the way I am now indicates it did happen. I don’t know when. I think it was when I knew you. The man’s symptoms added up to the hypothesis that he had been subject to sexual abuse by somebody, sometime, somewhere. And while charges were made and investigations mounted and lives ruined, some people realized that it was not provable and some therapists stopped countenancing a charge of sexual abuse against people on the basis of recovered memory.
In 1990, the AIDS crisis deepened. The heterosexual community was beginning to see that anyone could be infected. At that point a relative told me that the ones she felt sorriest for were the innocent victims, the wives and children of the men who had had sex with other men and who were infected with HIV, and had then passed it on to their wives and children. This kind of stupidity and insensitivity was everywhere. Other factors made the situation worse. The decision not to push prevention strategies in the LGBTQ and black communities was largely made because the Roman Catholic church was against the use of condoms. The fewer people who used condoms, the more cases of AIDS there will be.
I was about fifty when I was putting all this together in the novel that became Winter Rain. Nationally George H. W. Bush was being as stubborn as Ronald Reagan about LGBTQ issues, and internationally Bush was leading a coalition of nations who seemed to be determined to undo the delicate balance in the Mideast and bring war to the Persian Gulf. I had just completed Ceremonies, and I wanted to write a novel about one man and do it from the third person point-of-view. I wanted to get outside the protagonist as another way of getting at what was happening to him. I started with a man coming up out of the subway entrance—coming up out of the ground—running toward a hospital where his friend and former lover lay comatose with AIDS.
When this book was completed and submitted to publishers—in this case, it was Michael Dennehy and St. Martin’s Press in New York—I had great hopes for a sale of the novel because I was sure the novel was a good one and because St. Martin’s had the reputation of wanting to publish serious gay fiction. Also, Michael Dennehy was gay, and it would seem that, if Winter Rain were to get a positive reading, this would be it. I sent it off with great hopes. I was younger than I am now and naive.
It was sent back, rejected. Mr. Dennehy himself wrote the letter, telling me I was a good writer, but the people sitting around the conference table seemed unsure about what I was doing in Winter Rain. I was, they seemed to think, asking a great deal of the reader. And that was bad. I thought, Well, I was. I was asking my reader to put himself in the place of an LGBTQ man or woman from that period who was fighting the various storms that were hitting LGBTQ people. There is a man lying near death from AIDS—one of many persons with AIDS. There was a national debate going on over whether these people did it to themselves by engaging in unsafe sexual practices. At the same time there was virtually universal condemnation of the promiscuity of gay men, which some people said caused the AIDS case in the first instance. But I gave the reader no help in understanding whether this man deserves our sympathy—that is, whether he is a victim or whether he deserves what he’s getting. To top it all off, the novel ends without telling the reader what caused this. Other things happen in Winter Rain that seem like random events, but that seem to beg you to wonder what caused this? The editors at St. Martin’s press rejected Winter Rain because there was too much bad luck striking its characters, too much coincidence. It moved too far from the Aristotelian yoking of character and circumstance.
When tragedy arrives and the health of the community decays, people want to find the person responsible. People look for a personal character flaw in the leader, some failure to act quickly enough— He procrastinates. Or he is ambitious. Or jealous. Or He ever but slenderly knew himself. But the flaw in the answer is implicit in the question. There may not be a person who is responsible. It may be bad luck, it may be the way organizations or systems operate, it may be the way humans are: if you do this, others around you will do that, even if this is not only legal but natural.
Alec bursts in on us, coming up out of the ground as if he were rising from the dead, has a drink, and runs across the street to the hospital, where Amos is silent and still in his hospital room. Here begins the final judgment of Alec Argento.
The question that Winter Rain sets out to answer is What did Alec Argento do? We have seen him drinking. We know his son feels betrayed. We know he gives Amos a bed to die in. We know he got in a fight with his brother. He drives his father crazy. We know just about everything that he did for four or five days, and almost none of them reflect well on Alec. He was drinking too much to be responsible and on-time and steady.
The last pages of Winter Rain show how difficult it is to tell whether Lear was right when he said, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” How can you judge what Lear says? Alec provided a communal space for his friends through these days, and then, when Amos is dying and the hospital had nothing left they could do for him, Alec provided him with a place to die.
The question for me was, How do I take a man who has done so much to hurt other people and write it so that he breaks my heart with his grief? How do I write it—at least two men die violently, a marriage breaks up, two men who love one another split up, a father loses his son—so that it is possible that no one can find out who caused all this. Who is guilty? There is no way to assign guilt to one person, but even if guilt can be assigned, it cannot be assigned to one person or even to several.
Who are the good people? More pointedly, who wins in this contest? And before that, the question is, who’s right? And, of course, how does one tell? Count votes? Count money? Count friends? Power? Count the number who are still alive? Is that what we’re doing? Men used to do this differently from women, but I suspect the difference is getting less and less. What happens in this novel is that Alec Argento starts off, almost right away, battling something and, the reader fears, losing. But he isn’t defeated, he loses. Then we discover that that was only one race. He was also running another race, difference shows, different terrain, and something is going wrong there, too. We gradually come to see that this guy is in conflict from every angle—it’s coming at him from every direction, one of which is his father—and he’s just not in good enough shape to win everywhere at once.
Often guilt can’t be assigned. There is just no person who is guilty. Often it is hard to assign a cause of any kind. What causes a volcano? A hurricane, in which thousands die.
The editor I sent this novel to, the head of St. Martin’s Press, said that his staff, sitting around a conference table, concluded that I had just asked too much of my readers. I posed the possibility that my protagonist had killed a man, then I had withdrawn the possibility of finding out whether he had killed a man. That was true of killing the other man too, and it was true of the question of who passed HIV to whom, when the virus had invaded their relationship. It was also true of the armies who fought around the Gulf, but it was posed in a slightly different way. Whose armies imposed the greatest carnage on the other? Or who caused the particular carnage that killed this man. We are left with the man and his pain and with no way to tell whether he himself caused the pain. And as for the armies in the desert, Matthew Arnold said they are ignorant and clash by night. I think our tendency—that is, all of us, all the time—when things go wrong is to look for the person who caused it. Ah-ha! You did this! We can draw and quarter you and then things will be OK again. But sometimes that doesn’t help. Sometimes there are simply too many people who have failed, and in many cases, the damage is done and can’t be undone and the damage is so immense, so all-encompassing, that it belittles the actions that caused it. We are in too much pain to stop and try to indict them and convict them.
When writers confront the issues of pain, death, defeat, they inevitably have to ask why. Why had so many died? Did we, did they, do anything for which God was punishing them? Pride led to error and to violation of moral codes. What infected the nation was the violation of national moral codes by the king’s hamartia. There was a soution to the infected nation, which was to kill the disobedient.
There are other ancient sources. In the Book of Job, men, seeing the afflictions visited upon Job, ask him to curse God.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Book of Job, KJV, 38, 1-4
In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God sends angels to speak to Lot, for whole cities are supposedly to be destroyed for willfully violating God’s will.
And the men said unto Lot, Hast thou here any besides? son-in-law, and thy sons, and thy daughters, and whatsoever thou hast in the city, bring them out of this place: For we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxen great before the face of the Lord; and the Lord hath sent us to destroy it. And Lot went out, and spake unto his sons-in-law, who married his daughters, and said, Up, get you out of this place; for the Lord will destroy this city. But he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law. Genesis, KJV, 19, 12-14
This kind of clarity we don’t see much of anymore. What we do see is something closer to the Poetics of Aristotle, where the failure is less in disobedience than in error. Hamartia, often used as a synonym for pride, can be seen also as a synonym for mistake or failure. Hamartia is a human aspect that is entirely within the human himelf or herself. There is no divine entity involved in hamartia. What we are addresing here is the connection between pain and suffering, on the one hand, and its cause, on the other. What we are seeing is that connection as it developed over the first twenty-five hundred years of our Western culture.
A later illustration was the various plagues that swept Europe during the Middle Ages 1347-1351, killing between one-third and two-thirds of the population, or between 75 and 200 million people. As with Job and Sodom and Gomorrah, there were ritual references to “God” and references to the sins of the people, and connections between the sins causing the destruction and the need to placate an angry God, but several things continued—kings still died, ordinary people suffered and died, and people wanted relief from their pain and suffering. They gradually prayed to God less and less, but they had substitutes.
In our time, the Christian Right blames LGBTQ people for national catastrophes. They are the ones who caused it all. Conservatives blame liberals. Republicans blame Democrats. White Americans blame Black Americans. But the trouble is, the pain goes on no matter who is blamed, no matter what the pain is—a war in Southeast Asia, in the Gulf States, the deaths of tens of thousands from AIDS, the deaths of persons by vigilante gangs, a man in his twenties with an assault weapon and the ability to get into a grammar school. The trouble with We have to find who caused this is that this in our time is so vast—during the initial bombing of the Gulf War, the one that starts on page one of Winter Rain, there were 156,143 people in the US dead of AIDS—that it was like charging an army with murder. The Gulf War, with which Winter Rain starts, started with an aerial bombardment on January 16, 1991. Iraqi military casualties are believed to range between 20,000 and 35,000 men, women, and children. Civilian casualties are approximately 3500 men, women, and children from bombing and 100,000 men, women, and children from other causes. The US forces fatalities were 149 men and women, and fatalities among the other causes. It was not like finding the man who killed the old lady down the street. The story of Winter Rain is the story of Alec Argento, who suffered, but who suffered from the same thing that was killing everybody north of the Missouri. Or everybody named Smith in the Manhattan phonebook. It was impossible to know who suffered hamartia. How many men and women. How many thousands. Millions. And whether that had anything at all to do with the pain.
In 1991, during the Winter Rain narrative, the CDC announced that 1,000,000 Americans were infected with HIV. WHO estimated that nearly 10 million people were infected with HIV worldwide, 206,563 cases of AIDS reported at that date and 156,143 deaths to Americans. Amos is one of them. I thought, when I first started thinking about this book, that it would be about alcoholism, but in the book I wrote, the alcoholic has a friend with AIDS, and then, I realized, the focus of the book inevitably shifted.
And, in 2018, it was reported in the Washington Post that
more than 300 Catholic priests across Pennsylvania sexually abused children over seven decades, protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up, according to a sweeping grand jury report released Tuesday.
The investigation, one of the broadest inquiries into church sex abuse in U.S. history, identified 1,000 children who were victims, but reported that there probably are thousands more.
Pope Francis, responding to the report of the grand jury in Pennsylvania, has this to say in the Daily Wire:
Pope Francis implored the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to pray and resist the “Great Accuser,” Satan, who seeks to expose sin in order to divide the faithful.
Well, no shit. The impulse to blame somebody seems to be universal and eternal. It may be that the impulse to blame oneself is the most universal of all. Pain seems universal and eternal. Lear knew this. Job is taught this. An argument can be made that tragedy was the most popular dramatic form during the Renaissance just because it recognizes the existence of pain and then assigns blame. Laertes says, as he dies, “The king, the king’s to blame,” [Hamlet, 5.2.320] People pay money to see other people suffer. Or to see the king suffer. But it may be that something else is going on. It may be that people pay money to see someone experience what they themselves experience many days of the week—that is, pain.
Every immigrant from south of the US border knows this. Every child sexually abused knows this, too. When Alec comes up out of the ground, his drink at the bar soothes his pain temporarily, and the visit to Amos’s hospital room reminds him what the stakes are.
There is much pain in the world which does not derive its source from some cause, which is to say some choice which humans make. Earth was not perfectly made for us, and the conditions of our residence here includes places which give intense and long-lasting pain. Disease. What is the cause of cancer? Medical science assumes that eventually they will find some gene which fails in its job and then we will be told, We have found the cause of cancer. But that is not so. The question which needs to be answered is, Why is there a gene which can fail and cause cancer? If you remove bigotry from the equation, a person is left with an Earth which contains HIV and its disease, AIDS, for no reason. To be clear: the overwhelming suffering of the LGBTQ community and of the communities of color in America is not caused by anything except a bacterium in the wrong place—or doctors have not yet found the right med yet. The world is full of dangerous things, and it is bad luck if you become infected. There is no way to control when medicine will develop a vaccine. Despite conspiracy theories about the CIA and HIV, nobody did anything to make that happen. The connection between disease and human agency has been largely broken. The result is that much of what we experience is the result of a host of choices a person has made throughout his or her life—not to smoke, to swim regularly, eat well—and also a result of an even larger host of things we can only suffer through or suffer until we die. In the end of course, no matter how healthy our choices, we die.
Consider also the condition of alcoholism. While scientists have searched for a cause of the disease, they have not found one, no choice which humans make which causes alcoholism or they have found so many as to be confusing and unhelpful. Some people, in one biological family, develop alcoholism and others, in the same family, don’t. Why does one person drink and then stop drinking at a certain point, and another person similarly situated drinks and then is unable to stop drinking. While uncontrollable drinking seems to be a definition of alcoholism, and it seems true that it would be easy to reduce one’s alcohol consumption, which would put the person in control of his health, still the question remains, Why does this man drink uncontrollably and that one doesn’t? We seem to be able, with many people, to help a person stop drinking after he has become an alcoholic, but we are unable to prevent alcoholism entirely from occuring. We seem to be in the same place as with AIDS. A person’s body for some unknown reason develops an uncontrollable desire to drink alcohol. Morality seems to have nothing to do with it. Character seems to have nothing to do with it. Reason seems to have nothing to do with it. Faith changes nothing. Alcoholism is a devastating disease and extremely painful, and people on Earth seem to be in the appalling position of being unable to protect themselves from it any more than they can protect themselves from AIDS. It is one of the dangers of being alive, and it is senseless pain.
It is unlikely that we are going to create a world without pain. And most of the time, the pain we experience is not so much pain caused by a single person—my landlord, for example, or Lee Harvey Oswald, or, for that matter, our current president—as pain we can’t do anything about and have to live with. Alec Argento’s life is like this. He is an alcoholic, Amos is almost dead from AIDS, and then there is the man with two children. Much of the pain LGBTQ persons suffer is pain of this kind. There is no cause for which legal action can give relief or social action can eliminate. This is the condition of our lives. When our friends die and leave us bereft. When our friends leave us. When opportunity abandons us. When we do our best and that is not enough. When our government turns its most vicious, ignorant power on us. When the person who is supposed to offer us succor—our parent, our teacher, the priest, our friend—betrays us and judges us. This is a familiar theme in music, but not so much in literature. And yet, and yet.
This is a novel about the moment in time when the pain experienced by the LGBTQ community is perhaps at its greatest and is the moment when least can be done about it. No one caused this. In 1991, there were no effective medications for AIDS. The national government under George H.W. Bush was indifferent and had none of the sense of urgency which it was displaying so ostentatiously in its determination to go to war with Iraq. It was the settled policy of the Bush Administration not to allow the federal government to provide any help or resources to any LGBTQ persons.The little group of friends around Alec Argento were not a group of perfect people, either. They all drank too much, and no one in Winter Rain mentions a self-help program like Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon. Because of the conditions of their lives—they are not born into LGBTQ families—they have no or little communal knowledge, and they didn’t know what to ask of each other. They have almost no legal rights, and their communal rights are at the mercy of people who look on them mockingly or with a certain horror. The person who might have helped, like Alec’s father, can’t escape his bigotry, merely making things worse with his fly-by visits to Boston, his criticism, his ignorance of the basic conditions of his son’s life, his self-satisfaction, and his constant mocking of his son. There are crimes committed in Winter Rain that go unnoticed or forgotten because their perpetrators are concentrating on larger matters or are too drunk to remember committing them. Alec pays heavily for his failure to be a decent father. But even at his worst, he instinctively does what he has to do for Amos. That is redeeming. Whether it is enough, I don’t know. At the end, Winter Rain is close to an absolutely direct picture of a small community doing its thing during a period which rivals the plagues of Egypt. We want LGBTQ people to be virtuous when they fight back. But it is very clear that LGBTQ people fight back—and fight back clumsily but successfully—with the armies that they have, flawed as we are. LGBTQ literature, which includes Winter Rain and AIDS literature and the political literature of bigotry at this point in our history, is nearly identical to an epic war poem. Oscar Wilde said of the future of gay people: “The road will be red with monstrous martyrdoms, but we shall win.”
This is the tenth in a series of blog posts about reading and writing and about my books and, of course, about the LGBTQ community, who are riding on planet Earth along with everyone else as it falls through space.