Review: 'Army of Lovers' Vividly Recounts Passion, Pride, and 1980s AIDS Activism

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday October 11, 2022

K. M. Soehnlein ("The World of Normal Boys") returns to fiction with "Army of Lovers," a novel that looks back on 1980s activism and the excitement of youthful romance in a time of homophobia and the AIDS crisis.

Based on Soehnlein's own involvement with ACT UP (and his co-founding of Queer Nation), "Army of Lovers" tells a story of resistance in the face of social antipathy, legislative hostility, and a culture that would just as soon allow a plague to run rampant, as long as the delusion persists that it only affects gay men. Real people appear in the pages — Larry Kramer, RuPaul — but the fictional personae feel authentic.

The story is told in first-person narration by Paul, a native of New Jersey who has come to New York City to commence a life of authenticity. Together with his college boyfriend Derek — with whom Paul is in his first real relationship — Paul finds a home with ACT UP, and soon takes on a leadership role.

It's during one of the group's actions that Paul gets arrested and shares a cell with Zack, a biracial artist whose very presence makes Paul's heart beat faster than any of his shared adventures with Derek, which consist of threesomes with friendly, attractive guys. As the struggle for justice continues, Paul comes out to his family, mourns the friends who are dying of AIDS, and tries to figure out what to do with a love life that's anchored in the familiar, but also pulling him irresistibly in a different direction.

The novel possesses the immediacy of memoir, as Paul documents ACT UP's provocations, the toll of the AIDS epidemic, and the escalation of homophobic violence that plagued New York and made queer visibility a dangerous necessity. The first-person storytelling packs a punch: Bashed by a group of teenage boys in the midst of a gay rally, Paul relates how even more shocking and painful than being struck with a lacrosse stick was how "the entertainment on the stage continued without pause" even as the victims bled and police arrested one of his friends for trying to report the crime.

Other moments in the novel read like a prediction of things to come — or reminders of things that might seem modern, but have been with us always: "His fitness, on full display, is super-hot and superficial at the same time," Soehnlein writes of one character, before critiquing the LGBTQ+ equality movement a few pages later with:" "Self-correction becomes its own intoxicating end. Utopia looks inward, fixated on perfection."

But the book bristles with urgent energy, too — some of it sexual, and much of it angrily righteous. "We're here, we're queer!" someone shouts at a march that gives birth to Queer Nation, and whether the nascent group's accidental naming by a headline and the slogan's genesis are perfectly factual in their telling or not is beside the point: What matters is that the roots of the struggle be remembered and celebrated, even as the struggle is ongoing.

For people my age, who lived through the 1980s, the book will have some tough passages (more than once I had to put it down and return to it later). For younger readers, the book may have the feel of ancient history. For all readers there's an undeniable sense of ongoing relevance. Our rights, our families, and the validity of our existence is under assault now with a vicious intensity not seen since the 1980s. It's time we remember how, as well as why, we fight.

"Army of Lovers" by K. M. Soehnlein, is available now from Amble Press.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.