No-Accounts: Dare Mighty Things
- Tom Glenn
- Apprentice House
- 323 pp.
- E.A. Aymar
- June 6, 2014
Peter and Martin’s personal struggle with AIDS illustrates a universal story of recovery and redemption.
I don’t mean to ruin your day, but you’re probably going to be killed by a disease.
If not you, then it will happen to someone you know, possibly someone you love. This is an unwelcome realization we accept as we grow older, and as we realize that the illnesses that affected distant elderly people when we were younger are now attacking people our own age. Most of us are aware of how the most infamous and horrible diseases strike us down, but that knowledge pales in comparison to the anguish and loneliness of that slow dying.
It’s into this world that Tom Glenn’s novel, No-Accounts, takes the reader. Set in Washington, D.C., during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and told through two third-person perspectives, Glenn pulls no punches and wastes no words when it comes to describing the toll that AIDS has taken on his gay co-protagonist. “His ass was sticky from seeping diarrhea,” Glenn writes of Peter, a gay man dying of AIDS in the novel’s opening pages. “He needed to scrub the stink of rancid sweat from his skin. Hunger had gnawed at him for hours.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, the social, physical, and emotional effects of the AIDS crisis were well documented in movies (“Philadelphia”), plays (“Angels in America”), and literature (And the Band Played On). Even though the immediate threat of the AIDS crisis has ended in the United States, No-Accounts reveals that we can still be shaken by the reverberations.
Weakened by AIDS and haunted by the fact that he wittingly spread the disease to another, Peter decides to reach out to Charbonne Clinic’s buddy program for help, physically and emotionally. He is paired with Martin, an older, straight college professor who has volunteered for the program, and is divorced due to a scandalous affair. Although their relationship is rough at the beginning, these two form a strong bond, which is later tested when Martin discovers that the man Peter infected was one of Martin’s most prized students.
Glenn makes Peter’s and Martin’s personal struggles universal, without the clumsiness that often overcomes writers when addressing a social issue. They never become ad hoc stereotypes for the cultural relevance of the AIDS epidemic. Similarly, Glenn doesn’t allow Peter or Martin to descend into cliché, despite the fact that their surface characteristics (Peter is a young, male, gay dancer and Martin is an older, promiscuous college professor) are common tropes.
Peter and Martin suffer heavily, both trying to find their way through the ruins their own recklessness has caused, and their search for redemption brings them to a deeper understanding of themselves. Neither is innocent, and both have willfully destroyed the lives of the ones they cared about. It is a mark of skilled craftsmanship that, despite their transgressions, neither person is repulsive to the reader.
Moments of humor intersperse the story. For example, when Peter asks Martin if he “ever get[s] horny,” he replies, “No, I stay that way.” And there are passages that touch on beauty, even during the novel’s most heartbreaking moments: “‘Do you forgive me for getting AIDS?’ Peter’s face contorted. ‘Do you think God forgives me?’ Peter shook his head. Tears started down his cheeks. ‘I’m one of His mistakes.’”
The strength of the novel is in the quiet details, and there are plenty of powerful moments that are easily visualized. Part of this is because the novel is largely dialogue; at times, it cannot help but seem like you’re reading a play. This could be a quibble for some readers but, like a good play, none of the dialogue is extraneous, and the conversations almost always lead to a sense of poignant understanding between Glenn’s protagonists.
No-Accounts is more than a story about the AIDS crisis, although it is that. It’s a story of recovery and redemption, of two scarred men limping forward together, helping each other, and realizing recovery can be another word for acceptance. Peter and Martin are outcasts in their day, separated from their former lives by disease and scandal. But they’re both desperately seeking some sort of honor, with the kind of desperation that comes when death is both immediate and inevitable. There is a dignity they hope to find in their search, and there is a dignity in the search itself. Glenn’s powerful novel gives that same dignity to the victims of AIDS and to those who stood by the victims, easing them into death.