Cardiff, Maine, on the Penobscot River, is a somnolent, ordinary little town. As people wake up on Sunday morning, gay men and women begin to discover that Bernie Mallett was murdered the night before, apparently by antigay bigots who beat him up, stripped off his clothes, and threw him in the Passadumkeag Stream, where he drowned.
At a memorial service Monday night, gay people in town meet each other, most of them for the first time, express their sorrow and anger, and walk down the hill to the bridge where Bernie drowned, shocked by the TV cameras on the flat-bed trucks in the street next to them. The next day dozens of men and women in Cardiff come out to their bosses and their families and fellow workers, and for the first time for many of them, their lives have become exposed and intensely political. The murder of Bernie Mallett becomes a national story, carried on the networks and in the New York Times and other national media. Over the next days and weeks, the gay people of Cardiff found a Coalition of Gay Men and Lesbians.
Men and women search for ways they can work together. They also discover more about themselves. They are in serious danger both from homophobic boys and from the possibility of making the wrong decisions in this crisis. They think about what their lives have meant and what they mean now. What to do? These months are played out against the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic and during the final months of the second Reagan campaign.
The town School Committee meets to consider a Tolerance Policy for the local high school. “Tolerance” wins, but many are dissatisfied. “Who could be satisfied with being ‘tolerated?’” In the “Epilogue,” on Halloween in Boston, an actor discovers he can’t escape fighting against bigotry—you just can’t not fight—and can’t escape the danger Bernie Mallett was in.
This novel is told in first person accounts that are sometimes sequential and sometimes overlap chronologically and are sometimes discrete but which together make two narratives—the story of the events of the summer of 1984 in Cardiff, Maine, and the very intimate stories of the lives of seven individuals and a few others, all of whom have felt same-sex feelings.
Few books have so comprehensively looked at the consequences of violence against gay men and lesbians. When asked for Ceremonies’ main attraction, many readers have said, It’s the people. They have also said, Look at what they were able to do together.