I have read a number of novels set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis in the gay community during the 1980s. Many of them focus on what it was like to care for dying loved ones, but After Francesco by Brian Malloy has a different focus: what it was like to live on while those around you perished.
The novel begins two years after Kevin Doyle loses Frankie, the love of his life. Kevin hasn’t moved on, nor does he want to. He talks to Frankie as if he were still there, and relives old memories as he drinks himself deeper into depression. His friends know that Kevin is slowly killing himself, and in a last-ditch effort to help him pull his life together, they put him on a plane bound for his hometown in the Midwest.
The novel reads more like a memoir, with Kevin driving the narrative, flipping between his present day and scenes from his relationship with Frankie. The story is simple, but the characters are richly drawn and complex. Kevin’s grief is palpable and complicated, like grief always is. It is angry, it is sad, it is frustrated, it is thankful, and it is filled with love that has nowhere to go. Relatable, for anyone who has lost a person they love.
In the United States, by 1995, one in nine gay men had been diagnosed with AIDS, one in 15 had died, and AIDS had decimated 10% of the 1.6 million gay men aged 25-44. (The AIDS Epidemic’s Lasting Impact on Gay Men, The British Academy Blog Feb. 19, 2018). This book helps readers understand, in some small way, the reality behind those numbers. It offers a glimpse of what it felt like to live in a time where there were no treatments, no government responses, and where rampant discrimination meant that not only were gay men dying, but they also were losing their jobs, their homes, and their livelihoods all at the same time.
Given the gravity of the subject matter, the most surprising part of this novel is its humor—humor tinged in bitter sadness. The book is a study in the kind of humor that helps us cope in the absolute worst of circumstances. Some of the most humorous lines were so real that in my head I could hear my best friends saying them. I expected to cry when reading this one (and I did) but I hadn’t expected to laugh. There were probably as many chuckles as there were tears.
As the 40th anniversary of the first reported AIDS cases approaches, this is an important read that is absolutely worth your time. It would be a great book club selection, and the copy that I have even contains a list of questions for discussion.
***I received an Advanced Reader Edition of this book from the publisher. It goes on sale May 25, 2021.