book club: ‘the great believers’.

by Michael King

My friend, the Facebook message read, are you ready to have your heart broken again?

And so it was that I received the recommendation for The Great Believers, a novel that coaxed me into loving its characters, then (as promised) broke my heart as it pulled them through the heartbreak and hope of living, and losing their lives, through the AIDS crisis in 80’s Chicago.

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The Great Believers takes place in two different timelines, alternating between them and revealing surprise connections between the past (80’s-era gay Chicago) and the present (2016 Paris). In the first storyline, Yale and his lover Charlie make their way to the dismal celebration of their recently passed friend, Nico, and the pall of the disease hangs over their heads. In the second, Nico’s sister, Fiona, embarks toward Paris, hoping to find her daughter, resolved to rescue her from a cult and bring her home.

He wouldn’t do this, not even if tested positive. Because the test didn’t mean you’d get sick this year or next year. If he ever went blind, he thought, he might end it then. If he couldn’t get through the day without shitting his pants. He and Charlie had met a guy that summer who’d sat there telling them about his lover, how this guy had vowed to kill himself when he couldn’t dance. And then when he couldn’t dance he’d changed it to when he couldn’t eat. And when he couldn’t eat, he’d said, ‘When I can’t talk.’

‘He never did it,’ the guy said. ‘He fought for his last breath. And what does that tell you? What does that tell you?’

As a gay man in 2020, it is sometimes unsettling to remember how recent the history of HIV and AIDS truly is. The fear, paranoia, grief, and rage of a community suddenly vanishing. The heartbreak and hopelessness of how indifferent so many outside the gay community seemed. To read The Great Believers is to immerse in those emotions. Still, even in the midst of disaster, life seems to march on: Yale explores the possibility of acquiring new art for the university gallery, Charlie works to promote his paper in Chicago, and Fiona struggles to figure out college and love as she continues to take care of the gay men falling, one after the other. In her future timeline, we see some of the fallout of that labor: how does one let go, what does it mean to move forward?

And what she remembered now, staring out Richard’s window toward the afternoon sun, was the absurd feeling back then, when Claire was eight, that they’d already missed the boat forever. That the damage had been done sometime in the past, not the present, and they were living in its aftermath. That the best they could hope for was good scarring.

In the afterword of The Great Believers, author Rebecca Makkai acknowledges that part of her inspiration for telling this story is Chicago’s general absence from the stories we know of the AIDS crisis. A Northwestern alumna herself, she plants the story firmly in Chicago: Belmont, Evanston, Roscoe’s, DePaul. As the distance grows between the present and those years, perhaps a city in the Midwest seems somehow ‘safe’ from the reach of that crisis, but the stories here are familiar, harrowing, heartbreaking.

‘Here’s what I don’t want. I don’t want you to adopt me next, and then whoever else gets sick, and then the next guy, and before you know it you’re fifty and you’re living in a ghost town surrounded by all our old clothes and books.’

‘I won’t adopt the next person. Just you.’

At its core, The Great Believers examines hope. What is a life worth, and does it retain its worthiness even when it is certain to end? What is love, and is it something to really believe in, and what about love that is, itself, certain to end? What do we leave behind in the hands of those who take care of us near the ends of our stories, and what does it mean for them to let go? What matters? What fades? What stays? These are the questions that The Great Believers, from its beginning pages to the echoes of its stories, poses.