Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir is one of the first books of its kind about the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) virus: a personal narrative that puts the disease in the context of everyday life. Such an account, while fully acknowledging the suffering and anger and loss of AIDS victims and their loved ones, helps to demystify the disease. Indeed, because of the dearth of information about AIDS and the urgent need for a forum to disseminate that information, Borrowed Time contains a relatively full discussion of statistics, drug information, symptomatology, doctors, and clinics. In this sense, as a book crammed with vital information about AIDS, Borrowed Time belongs in a category with several other groundbreaking AIDS-related texts, such as Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985), William M. Hoffman’s As Is (1985), Emmanuel Dreuilhe’s Mortal Embrace: Living with AIDS (1988), and George Whitmore’s Someone Was Here (1988). Borrowed Time must be understood within the context of art from what Dreuilhe would call the front line.
Borrowed Time, like many early AIDS-related texts, has its moments of stridency and bitterness. It contains shocking evidence of the flagrant homophobia that has surrounded every aspect of responses to the disease—from the terrifying lack of government funding of research for the disease and care for the ill to the internalization of hatred of homosexuals by gay men themselves. As well, it records Monette and Roger Horwitz’s day-by-day battle with the virus, through pneumonia, near blindness, blindness, diarrhea, fevers, sweats, weakness, and moments of mental disorientation. It describes the battle for new drugs such as suramin and azidothymidine (AZT), a battle which involves drug smuggling from Mexico as well as ingenuity, connections, sheer willpower, and massive amounts of money. Untested, unapproved, and unfinished as they are, some drugs do more damage than good. Others, however, buy for Roger precious borrowed time.
It may very well be the case that thousands of AIDS victims have needlessly died because of the red tape, competition, homophobia, and politics that have plagued the disease’s victims nearly as badly as the virus has itself. “It made us crazy,” Monette writes, “to think the FDA or the NIH hadn’t made funds available so that thousands could be on the drug”; he adds that the “deterministic smugness, whereby we were only getting what we deserved, was so widespread in the upper chambers of the government that the AIDS issue probably never darkened the threshold of the Oval Office.”
For all of its requisite bitterness and anger, however, the book is not about the unfairness of the way the Oval Office or the drug industry has responded to AIDS. Instead, Borrowed Time deals on a more personal level with the unfairness that AIDS should be able to destroy a love, a love like Monette and Horwitz’s.
From the front line of persons with AIDS, Borrowed Time is Monette’s narrative from the time just before Horwitz, his lover, was diagnosed with AIDS to the time just after Roger died. The Monette shown within the pages of the book is a neurotic, manic, melodramatic hypochondriac as well as a charming and successful novelist, poet, and screenwriter (best known for Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll, 1978). Monette says, for example, of a parade during Gay Pride Week, “I worried about the germs and wouldn’t let us buy any streetside food.” He celebrates the fact that in the hospital “the tenth floor is terrific if you want a lot of food. You can à la carte the high-caloric stuff till it fills the tray, and they’ll whip up a milk shake on five minutes’ notice.” The threat of germs and the danger of immense weight loss to AIDS patients make Monette’s overzealous concerns understandable. At the same time, the Monette who recounts his frenzied attempts to help Horwitz is smart, witty, and self-conscious. When friends toast his enormous courage, he admits, “It’s not that I’m so wonderful. These very friends have seen the wall-paper curl from my overwrought opinions. I am nice to old ladies and dogs, but otherwise I might say anything at all, often about as subtle as a...
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