This book is a masterpiece of investigative reporting. Proceeding chronologically, Randy Shilts lays out the course of the AIDS epidemic from 1976, when the virus seems to have leaped from central Africa to Europe and then from Europe to the United States, to the early months of 1987, when the nation belatedly began to come to terms with the disease’s true seriousness. Shilts, who has covered the AIDS epidemic full-time for the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE since 1982, tells his story by knitting several different strands into a well-integrated narrative. On one level, Shilts graphically portrays the ravaging effects of a slow and relentless death on AIDS victims and their loved ones. Against this “human interest” backdrop, he recounts the nation’s effort to bring AIDS under control, taking the reader on a journey into gay America, the country’s health and scientific establishments, and American politics on the local, state, and national levels.
What emerges from this tour is far from hopeful. Though some doctors, community leaders, researchers, and public officials threw themselves into the fight against AIDS with much vigor and devotion and others were at least sensible and humane, the nation’s overall response was tragically sluggish. Shilts’s account associates this failure with a number of factors: the crippling effects of President Ronald Reagan’s budget-cutting efforts, a news media largely oblivious to AIDS (until Rock Hudson’s death from the disease in 1985), lack of cooperation among scientists and different federal agencies, obstinacy within the gay community, and, underlying these, the American public’s lack of interest in a disease, no matter how deadly, thought to affect only homosexual men.
In the course of doing his research, Shilts doubtless saw more than a few friends lose their lives to AIDS. With this book, he has paid homage to those friends. He has also enabled the American people to make better-informed decisions about AIDS testing and education as they confront a massive medical and political challenge which, unfortunately, has only begun.