When a mysterious epidemic started ravaging the globe, many vulnerable people didn’t want to get tested for the virus. They didn’t want their families and friends to know the truth. They didn’t want their partners to know. Sometimes, they didn’t want to know.
Alan E. Rose was just back from Australia, and shellshocked after losing his own partner to that disease: AIDS. He walked into Portland’s Cascade AIDS Project one day in 1994, looking only to volunteer. But because of his background as a mental health professional and his smart suggestions about deploying gay men to test gay men for the virus that causes AIDS, he was hired on to manage what became a national model for effective AIDS screening.
“As If Death Summoned,” Rose’s recently released fourth novel, is a powerful, compassionate, unflinching dive into the personal and political realities of the AIDS epidemic in Portland.
“I’ve read a lot of AIDS fiction, but I never had read anything written from the viewpoint of the AIDS organization staff,” Rose said by phone from his Clark County home in the Lewis River valley. “I really wanted to talk about what it was like to be on the front lines — the men and women, gay and straight, who are caring for people and trying to prevent others from becoming HIV-positive.”
In Rose’s semi-autobiographical story, those men and women represent delightful, occasionally hilarious diversity — a flirty drag queen, a worldly young street survivor and corruption fighter, a crew-cutted ex-colonel who always introduces himself as, “I’m John and I’m not gay.”
But John’s son is gay. Volunteering with the testing project is one conservative father’s way of reaching out to the child he still loves but can’t understand.
“One result of the AIDS epidemic was that the American public began to see gay people differently, because those people were their sons and brothers and uncles and nephews,” Rose said. “I met a lot of conservatives who broke through their own prejudices.
“The AIDS epidemic helped with decriminalizing and ‘deperverting’ gay people in the public’s mind,” he said. “So that was one benefit, at a terrible cost.”
The cost is tallied up in an early scene in the novel, as one frontline worker reveals that he’s been to 141 funerals. After keeping his own grief bottled up inside, Rose’s unnamed protagonist experiences a powerfully cathartic moment when writing down the names of all the loved ones he’s lost to AIDS.
“As If Death Summoned” may sound desperately tragic — and it is — but its sharply drawn characters, snappy dialog, plot twists and occasional dip into Australian mountain mysticism make it a lively, unpredictable, rewarding read. Rose translates tough emotions into accessible prose and lightens it up with appropriate dashes of sarcasm and wicked wit.
“Honestly,” one character counsels an above-it-all colleague, “you should try judging people sometime. It can make you feel really, really good.”
“There was so much humor in my experience of the AIDS epidemic, and I wanted to capture that,” Rose said. “That’s always my style anyway.”
Rose, 73, said he wanted to write an AIDS novel for years, but it was up to his subconscious to decide when he was ready to wrestle with such tough material. He published three other novels in the meantime, and worked as the director of the Lower Columbia Community Action Program in Longview until retiring so he could devote himself to writing.
“Sometimes you’ve got the spark but it doesn’t burst into flames for a long time,” he said. “I see my subconscious as my partner. The most profound part of writing is beyond my ego control.”
He spent two years writing and two years polishing the novel, he said. Finding a publisher wasn’t easy. Bywater Books, a small publisher of lesbian fiction, decided to try going bigger with Rose’s novel under a new imprint, Amble Press.
“I was tremendously honored to be the first male author to be signed on,” Rose said. Since then, reviews have hailed the book and it’s been nominated for a Foreword Indies Book of the Year Award, to be voted upon by librarians and booksellers in June. It’s available at Vintage Books in Vancouver.
The AIDS epidemic started to ease later in the 1990s with the arrival of antiviral drugs called protease inhibitors, Rose noted. That transformed the disease from a death sentence into a something people can live with. Things have changed so much, he said, that a novel about a decades-ago epidemic seemed irrelevant to many agents and publishers he tried.
Then, as the book was nearing publication, Rose had an unexpected reason to write a forward about facing a new pandemic and what we learned from the AIDS epidemic.
“We learned how to track an epidemic well. But we didn’t learn to keep politics out of what was a public health crisis,” he said.
“Both times we had a president who was clueless about a national health crisis, and we had public health officials putting their necks on the line,” he said. “It falls back on us. Those are some similarities.
“I’m hoping we come out of this pandemic better people — more understanding and more aware that we’ve got see ourselves as one people,” Rose said. “Otherwise, the epidemic will continue.”