When a mysterious disease began claiming young gay men’s lives in the early 1980s, the White House occupants of the decade, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, were silent. They remained silent for years as the death toll skyrocketed and pleas mounted for White House support. They had deep personal ties to Hollywood and the fashion industry, both famously populated with gay men, yet, still, they kept silent. The specter of this historic silence lurks eerily beneath AU MFA alumnus Philip Dean Walker’s imagined account in his story, “Charlie Movie Star,” of Nancy Reagan’s real-life hosting of Rock Hudson at the White House in 1984, one month before Hudson would be diagnosed with AIDS.
“Rock, you’re too thin. We need to fatten you up,” she says, a friendly statement that, for readers aware of Hudson’s death just over a year later after Reagan refused to help him access medical treatment, disturbs and haunts long past the story’s final page. Walker’s evocative debut collection, At Danceteria and Other Stories, achieves this haunting effect time and again, in stories brought to life with colorful celebrity icons of the ’80s, but made devastating in retrospect as we now know what the characters that populate these pages did not back then.
Unlike AIDS narratives in fiction that center on the disease’s ravaging of the gay community and the subsequent grief of friends and family of lost loved ones, Walker’s collection serves us snapshots of the era through a pop culture lens, capturing the intersection of gay men’s lives with familiar stars during a decade fraught with uncertainty and fear. In doing so, Walker’s stories take on an almost surreal quality, existing in a plane that hovers between the real and the imagined, between the extraordinary and the ordinary.
The collection opens with “By Halston,” a story that drops the reader into the New York City fashion world as Halston prepares for his new line’s runway show at the American Museum of Natural History. The protagonist downs champagne and snorts cocaine in the bathroom with his closest confidant, Liza Minnelli, and shares the evening with his ever-shrinking circle of friends, including Andy Warhol and Studio 54 co-owner, Steve Rubell. The show itself is staged in the museum’s great hall, above which hangs a giant blue whale suspended by wires—a vivid and strangely ominous presence that could serve as a metaphor for the HIV virus itself. Halston, who would eventually die of AIDS-related complications in real life, comments in the story, “If that whale came down on us now, the entire artistic output of the city of New York City would be decimated”—a striking imagistic threat that sets an unnerving tone for the remaining stories.
More icons populate the next story, “Don’t Stop Me Now,” in which Freddie Mercury, another star lost to AIDS, disguises his friend, Princess Diana, in drag to sneak her into a London gay bar, where she would watch a drag queen posing as herself receive adulation from the crowd. Like most, if not all, of Walker’s stories, this inventive plotline has roots in history, and conjures a delightfully bizarre scenario while also revealing a quiet irony—that arguably one of the world’s most loved and identifiable figures sought refuge amongst those society had yet to embrace. Walker’s Diana notes how “gay men had always treated her kindly. They seemed to sense how difficult it was to be trapped in something and not know a way out,” thoughts that betray an unexpected bond—a shared understanding of isolation.
While Walker’s celebrity characters offer glamorous glimpses of the decade, it is perhaps his non-famous protagonist in “The Boy Who Lived Next to the Boy Next Door” who tells the most compelling—and haunting—story of them all. Set in New York City in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, this story is narrated by an average-looking gay man who recounts the impact on the gay community of the strange illness that had come to be known as “Hot Guy Flu,” as only the most attractive gay men seemed to be the ones falling sick and dying. Such a phenomenon, though terrifying, results in two different trends: that some more average-looking men, including the narrator’s acquaintance, Anthony, begin pretending to have Hot Guy Flu, while others experience the thrill of a sexual boon as their prospects rise in a time when attractive men are either dying or are off-limits due to fear of the disease. For the retrospective reader, both trends are heart-wrenching and disturbing, not only for their commentary on the social hierarchy of the gay community, but for their showcasing of the community’s vulnerability when the disease was still so little understood.
Though slim in volume, Walker’s seven-story collection packs substantial heft. He writes with lucidity, wit, and sharp detail that make these star-studded stories intensely memorable. Just as the artist, Keith Haring, in the collection’s title story, draws “the story of our times” in a black Sharpie “tapestry” of unprotected sex on a nightclub column while Madonna performs on stage, Walker’s At Danceteria and Other Stories presents stories of the ’80s that are alive, original, and unflinching. This is a solid debut by an exciting new author.
Karen Keating is a contributing writer and third-year MFA candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.
Editors note: Philip Dean Walker’s second collection of stories, Caravan, will be published by Lethe Press in February 2018.