By Charles Rammelkamp
In the story “Katherine Mansfield” John Weir writes,
I don’t really understand friendship. If you’re in extreme need, I’m your best friend. Otherwise, I’m not there. There’s no second act in my life, but there’s a first and a third. I don’t do middles. I’ll stick around to fall in love and watch you die, but nothing in between.
Having lived through the slow, horrific death from AIDS of his close friend David, the author is experiencing a kind of PTSD. He feels survivor guilt. In “Humoresque” he writes: “My friends died and I didn’t. Or: I should have died and didn’t. Or: in 1984, I figured I’d be dead I five years; who didn’t?” Similarly, in the title story, “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me,” he writes: “I’ve watched friends die, and I have never been any help except to hold you and say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
The first part of this collection, called “AIDS Nostalgia,” includes seven of the eleven interconnected stories, almost all of them alluding to Dave. Indeed, the very first story, “Neorealism at the Infinplex,” begins: “My friend Dave died of AIDS in the fall of 1994.” In “It Must Be Swell to Be Laying Out Dead,” he tells us, “He’s the first person I speak to each day, the last one at night. Phone calls early and late. Every day for the past five years has started and ended with Dave.” In “Scenes from a Marriage,” he helps Dave in the bathroom at a Broadway theater as he sits on the toilet, “his pants and diapers on the floor.” His care of his friend is intimate and visceral, up close and personal. He feels helpless but responsible, anguished. “How can I help him? I’m not a doctor. He’s my best friend, but he doesn’t want me to touch him.,” he notes plaintively. Later in “Scenes from a Marriage” he writes, “By 1994 in New York City, AIDS had become routine, even as it stayed occult, a minority affliction.”
Yet Weir is also very funny, witty, especially in the voice of the manic, wisecracking David. He writes, “Now he’s dying, and I’m jealous. I’m competitive with Dave’s death. It’s all he cares about: dying, not dying.” And Dave, frustrated and desperate, lashes out at his friend/caregiver: “I’ve got news for you. You’re not the Messiah. You’re a fag. I’m a dying fag. I win the Suffering Sweepstakes. You think this is happening to you. Well, it’s not.”
“Katherine Mansfield” is a story about his romantic relationships soon after David’s death. Besides Marc, a successful singer/songwriter who regards Weir as his muse, there’s Phil, a younger guy he meets in an acting class. These relationships are doomed from the start, of course; Weir is too traumatized by death. He notes wryly about Phil, “A relationship that consisted of acting exercises, and an age difference big enough to span Madonna’s career, isn’t equipped to survive….” Elsewhere, he describes random furtive encounters in peepshow booths.
Movies, musicals, and stage plays are alluded to throughout these stories. Three of the stories – “American Graffiti,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” and “Humoresque” – are movie titles, as is “Imitation of Life,” the title of the third section, which contains only one story, the ominously titled “It Gets Worse.” “Katherine Mansfield,” by the way, is the name of the narrator’s friend Marc’s band; it does not allude to the British modernist writer, though Weir’s literary allusions abound, from Barthes and Foucault and Vladimir Mayakovsky to Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Thoreau, Stephen Crane, Robert Frost, Eudora Welty, Jack Kerouac, and so on.
Weir humorously channels the gay trope of worshipping camp actresses. In “American Graffiti” he writes, “I was an actress. I yearned to be. I still do. I wanted especially to be an actress in 1970s Hollywood movies. Those women!” He goes on to name-drop “Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Ellen Burstyn, Barbara Harris, Cicely Tyson, Carrie Snodgrass, Cloris Leachman, Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Diahann Carroll, Karen Black.” He compares himself to Tippi Hedren in The Birds.
The three stories that make up part two, “Long-term Survivors,” also focus on death and dying, including his mother, now in her 80’s, and an on again/off again lover/survivor named Scott. His mother lives in a retirement community and has just suffered a brain hemorrhage. “My mother is a movie star without a movie to star in,” he writes in “Humoresque.”
Just as in real life – indeed, it often feels hard to distinguish between fiction and memoir and essay in Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me – the narrator is involved in gay political causes, protesting with ACT UP for AIDS research and care, and with Queer Nation, notably a protest outside the Russian Consulate in New York against Vladimir Putin’s Medieval laws against homosexuals. “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re only drinking beer,” they chant, as they pour out Russian vodka onto the pavement.
By far the most affecting stories are the ones that describe being bullied and called names in his rural New Jersey schools. Not yet even sure of his sexuality, he is nevertheless singled out and tormented by other schoolboys who taunt, “Faggot!” “Fairy!” “Fruitcake!” “Homo!” “American Graffiti” takes place during his graduation from high school in 1976. As he crosses the stage to receive his diploma, the taunts are audible to all. The story is about his friendship with a girl, Lottie, whose parents seem to assume they are a romantic item. It’s a confusing time for both. The final story in the collection, “It Gets Worse,” takes us back to an even earlier time, in middle school, when the taunting began. “I was president of the fourth grade,” he writes, “my peak. Downhill since.”
Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me is entertaining and heartbreaking by turns, always a gripping read.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Nostalgia-Killing-Grace-Paley-Fiction/dp/1636280293
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.