Boystown 6: From the Ashes
Marshall Thornton's "Boystown" series continues with a sixth volume in the adventures of the 1980s-era gay private eye Nick Nowack. (NOTE: This is a completely different, though similarly-named, series from Jake Biondi's soapy, contemporary gay drama, also set in the famed Chicago neighborhood.)
The '80s might have been a time of preppies dressing in pink shirts and other pastel hues like so much boy candy, but it was also a dismal time for gays. The AIDS epidemic, ignored by the Reagan Administration until it had gone on far too long, lost no time in taking root; anti-gay religious conservatives lost no time, either, in seizing on the crisis as proof of God's anger and punitive stance regarding gay "lifestyles" -- conveniently forgetting, as they did so, that the disease, shown to be caused by a virus, also affected hemophiliacs, and, in Africa, was becoming a scourge of heterosexuals... all while lesbians demonstrated the lowest infection rate of all.
The newest book in the series, "From the Ashes," is set in February of 1984. There's still a lot of fear and uncertainty about AIDS, and as yet there's no test for the virus. Indeed, as one passage in the book reflects, there was still some confusion about the cause of the disease, though a French scientist had isolated the virus in 1983. What gay men of the time saw all around them was how their friends were getting sick and dying, and that bit of history provides a powerful and tragic backdrop to Nowak's new case.
At first, the gay gumshoe is in no frame of mind to do much crime solving. His lover Bert, having struggled with AIDS in his final months, is dead, but not due to the plague. Rather, Bert has used himself as bait to draw out a serial killer targeting gays, the so-called Bughouse Slasher, whom Nowak has identified and put down (in Book Five).
Now, struggling with grief and guilt, Nowak has retreated from his life as a private eye, moving into a cheap hotel and taking on a full-time job as a bartender and heavy drinker. It's only when Bert's hostile Czech-born mother appears, suspicious of her priest's death and wanting Nowak to investigate, that he begins to climb out of the bottle and re-engage with life.
At first, the death of Father Maniatis appears to be the result of a simple heart attack. At age 42, the priest may have been a bit young, but when Nick learns that the good Father had a medical history not inconsistent with his demise, he's set to brush off Mrs. Harker's concerns and go back to his alcoholic fog. Then things begin adding up in ways that don't quite make sense -- and Nowak realizes that Mrs. Harker might be on to something after all.
This series has always been fun to read, partly for Marshall's familiarity with Chicago of the 1980s and partly for the gay scene he depicts in all its multi-faceted glory. Some elements still shock the reader, such as a gay teen's parents chucking him onto the street, or Nowak's encounter with a former flame who is far too afraid of AIDS to want to touch him. (If HBO's film version of "The Normal Heart" made a big juicy point of how sexual promiscuity among gay men was heartily embraced as a form of political pushback, Marshall's account pays attention to the panicked flip-side that saw gay men turning to celibacy, or even gay-hating religious traditions, out of mortal terror.) But then again, other elements of this compelling novel remain defiantly sexual and steamy -- even if there's less sex in this book than in earlier installments, as Nowak moves through a community that's been scared out of its wits.
In this way, Thornton proves scrupulously honest about the setting; sex was more dangerous, which could seem hot but which was also stressful. There are passages that strike a poignant chord, such as a scene in which Nowak goes home with a trick only for things to take a much different turn than he was expecting. More poignant still are scenes in which sex is far from anyone's mind, such as when Mrs. Harker grudgingly allows Nowak to see old photos of Bert, in a series of encounters that proves cathartic for them both.
Nowak is a cranky cuss of a man, about as hard-boiled as you please, and Mrs. Harker is homophobic and judgmental in an old-world way that grates against modern sensibilities, but Thornton finds ways to make them sympathetic. The way the two characters circle each other, searching for necessary common ground, works for the novel. Issues of resentment and alienation from the Catholic faith are inevitably going to arise in a book set in this place and time (and featuring a gay Polish-American protagonist), but Thornton refrains from church-bashing even as Nowak searches for a killer in the politically labyrinthine milieu of a parochial school and its associated parish. There's even a definite, if ambiguous, charge that takes hold between Nowak and a priest named Father Joe, who helps Nowak gain entry to sensitive inner sanctums.
The book is littered with cultural references to the year, as well - the famous Apple Computer commercial aired during the 1984 Superbowl, for instance, and a few songs from the pop charts of the day. Hilariously, Nowak fails to grasp any of it; he's in his mid-thirties, and has no idea why people can't just stick with typewriters. For Gen Xers who came of age during the computer revolution, this will make complete sense and provide an additional layer of fun because while Nowak's view of computers is clearly naive, those of us who lived through the times Marshall recalls in the novel will recognize some of Nowak's skeptical attitude in ourselves.
So the world turns -- but Thornton turns it back for us, re-creating the best and the worst of a critical, watershed era. 1984 remains an intriguing place to visit, but boy, am I glad I don't live there anymore.
"Boystown Book 6: From the Ashes," by Marshall Thornton
Publication Date: June 16, 2014