My favourite book in all the world is Where the Rainbow Ends by Jameson Currier.
As someone who has read hundreds, if not thousands of books in the 22 years since I precociously learnt to read (I still remember my mum’s word/picture cards, in the days before I went to school – thanks mum!) this is not, you understand, an easy thing to say. And it has changed over the years as I discover new books, and I’m sure will change in the future.
I’ve read and re-read this book many times since I first stumbled across it, in the beautiful library of the Carlisle Bay Hotel. I remember the first time I read it – in this luxury of a 5 star Caribbean hotel, sobbing out loud on my hotel bed, blind to the blue sea and white sand in front of me, seeing only New York, and Los Angeles, and the death of everyone I loved.
Every time I have come back to it since then, I begin with trepidation. It’s not like my previous favourite book, which was also sad, but which I fell into every time with relief, like coming home. Every time I begin, I begin with trepidation. Do I still think it’s the best book ever? Do I still love it? Is it as good as I’ve made out?
I think the reason I feel this way is because I love it so much, I keep recommending it to people. Just this week I lent it out (don’t worry, I also have it on my Kindle!) and it feels slightly like giving a part of you away. Will someone look at you differently, once they have read a book they know is your favourite? What if they don’t like it? What if they judge you for it, or judge it because you like it?
Where the Rainbow Ends is the story of Robbie Taylor, a young man, barely 20, who has moved to New York after finishing college. It is the late 70s and the gay subculture is flourishing, with all-night disco-ing, copious amounts of drugs, weekends of Fire Island, and so much sex. Robbie and a group of friends come together, developing a close-knit group they will retain for the rest of their lives.
Robbie grew up in a strictly religious household, with mother who died young and a father who beat him and disowned him when he found out his son was gay. The book is an intensely personal journey through Robbie’s life – and in fact, my only negative statement is that at the beginning it is perhaps too introspective. Too much of Robbie thinking and analysing everything that it doesn’t seem entirely natural. He is an optimist and a romantic, looking for love in a gay subculture that appears dominated by sex and one-night stands. The beginning third of the book focusses on the characters’ development as they get to know and love each other, discussing friendship, love, family, religion…. but always with partying and sex foremost, with gay life depicted as fun, heady, sexual abandon.
The sex is explicit, with some of the most explicit sex scenes I have read in any novel, gay or straight. But I think it is really important that it is so detailed and open – because of what comes next.
And what comes next is, obviously, Aids. There have been suggestions earlier in the novel – minor STIs such as crabs or chlamydia are gently touched upon, issues that perhaps break up relationships but ultimately are shrugged off and easily gotten rid of. Gradually there are mentions of colds that can’t be shaken, people not coming dancing because they feel ill, but always just dropped in as an aside.
Then, an article appears in the New York Times, and Robbie and his boyfriend, Nathan, read for the very first time of a “gay cancer”. This provokes discussions of whether being gay is biological – can a cancer be “gay”? But no real fear.
And then one chapter ends with a midnight phone call, and a death. The next opens:
This was the order in which they died:
And then there is a list of names, all characters which the reader has come to know and can clearly picture in their minds. The fear of Aids, the unknown, comes across so intensely in those next few pages. Lovers examine each others’ bodies with renewed intensity, characerised by worry, rather than lust, each dealing with the onslaught of grief and fear in their own way – denial, by making lists, by throwing oneself into the gym.
There was, really, no way to escape the news, even if it was only reaching us through an underground network of gossip and codes. Nothing much was known but everyone was grappling for information, and then the phone would jarringly ring with the news that so-and-so was sick or was in the hospital or was dead.
I was only born in 1988 – I was too young for this, not aware of it. The idea of everyone you know and love, close friends, casual aquaintances, dying, dying, dying. Prejudice meant that gay people tended to congregate together perhaps more than they do now, the only group of people with whom they could be themselves. So many in New York had come as an escape from families who did not accept them – all they had were their friends, and most of these were gay. And now most of these were dying. It really brought home to me the horror of Aids, in a way that reading statistics and news reports just can’t. So many young people – people at the start of their lives, with everything ahead of them. People who do not usually die slowly and horribly of disease.
Currier himself said in an interview:
I began writing as therapy as a way to navigate my own fears of becoming ill…There were no blood tests for HIV then. Friends were running to doctors because they were breaking out in sweats at night or because their tongue was coated white. It was such a suspicious and maddening time. This was true fear – that your health and youth could just be ripped away from you… And this fear never relented. It was always there. And there were days when I had to put it all on paper in some kind of way so that it wouldn’t sit and fester in my mind.
Robbie’s boyfriend gets Aids, while Robbie remains clear. In some of the most truthful, honest and moving chapters I have ever read, Robbie describes caring for his dying boyfriend, no shying away from the shame of the uncontrollable body, from vomit and from diarrhoea, and no shying away from the shame of the uncontrollable feelings of the carer.
And so I came to hate Nathan for this, hated having to wait there and be hungry, wait to hear news from a doctor or an intern, wait for someone to leave, wait for his mother and father to stop kneading their hands together, wait till Nathan needed something done, wait till he threw up and I would have to clean the floor or the sink or run a warm washcloth across his mouth and forehead
How can I hide my hatred, I thought, as I pulled a diaper from where Dora had hidden them in a dresser drawer. How can he not see it in me when I feel every shiver of his pain and embarrassment? As I moved him back to the bed, adjusted his hips, took the cloth and ran them around his legs, his eyes never left me, uneasy and entreating. How can I prove to him that I want him here, that what is happening now has no bearing on my love him, when, in fact, my hatred of what is happening is mutating that very love as vilely as the virus within his body?
He dies, and the reader knows it is going to happen, but I can’t stand it anyway. Every time I am left weak and sobbing. And then, of course, people just continue on dying.
It is not all horrific, of course. There are light-hearted moments in his life still, kind friends, new and old, jokes and laughter. There is political activism for gay rights and greater recognition of the disease. There is love, there are children, and there is the hope of a new generation, free from prejudice and hate. The book fully examines what the meaning of family is – those we are born to, or the families that we pull around us and make for ourselves out of friends and loved ones.
But ultimately the book is a memorial – to a generation of lost gay men and to the survivors left behind. As said above, it is about faith, about family and about love. The writing is beautiful, and although it has a reputation for being a “fantastic gay novel” that has won gay literary prizes, I really wish it would get a reputation for being a “fantastic human novel“. Gay or straight, the emotions we experience are the same and so are the things that are important in our lives. It is a ridiculously good, moving and hopeful book.