Yale Tishman is a name that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it may eventually take its place in literary memory next to Nick Adams, Nick Carroway, Holden Caulfield and the rest of the memorable male characters in American fiction.
Tishman is the primary character in Rebecca Makkai's much-lauded novel, "The Great Believers" (Viking, 2018). As the book opens, he and his partner, Charlie, are on their way to a funeral "party" for Nico, one of their close friends in a circle of men living in Chicago's Boystown. It's 1985 and Nico is the latest casualty among their circle to die with a new disorder linked to a virus that is evidently passed among homosexual men. Presenting as a rash or pneumonia, the wasting disease progresses rapidly and inevitably results in death.
The illness is, of course, AIDS, and the action takes place in the early stage of this horrendous epidemic. President Reagan and the Federal government are acting as if AIDS is God's punishment for gay people; police and physicians wear gloves and masks and are afraid to come in contact with anyone who is gay; fear stalks Boystown and its equivalents across the country. But amidst all the death and grief, believers talk about a cure and hope for survival.
Nico's sister, Fiona, is also at the funeral "party" along with Tishman. Another vividly drawn character, she refuses to go to the official funeral, spurning her parents and family who had rejected Nico. We see the 20-year-old Fiona in 1985 Chicago as she cares for her friends with AIDS, demonstrates and marches for better health care, and manages the end-of-life care and estates of several of her friends with AIDS.
In alternate chapters in 2015 Paris we see her, divorced and 50ish, searching for her estranged daughter and the granddaughter she has never met. While searching in Paris, she reunites with Richard, a photographer who chronicled the Boystown years and who is preparing for a major show at the Pompidou. She also encounters Julian, the great believer who was certain that there was a cure for AIDS and who was the only one from their circle who actually benefited from it when it came. The time in Paris is complicated by murderous terrorist incidents as Fiona desperately tries to hold it together.
Makkai's writing is outstanding. She successfully weaves the personal and the historical, managing to sharply delineate the individual lives as they navigate the world events unfolding around and threatening to engulf them — AIDS, terrorism, immigration. As Yale muses, "It's always a matter, isn't it, of waiting for the world to come unraveled? When things hold together, it's always only temporary."
One of the many subplots involves Yale's job as a development officer for the new Northwestern University Art Museum. Nora Lerner, Nico and Fiona's aunt and an aging doyenne, wishes to leave her art collection to Northwestern, her late husband's alma mater. Not only is there uncertainty about the provenance of the works, but the gift is opposed by Nora's son, who pressures the University's chief development officer with a threat to cancel another donor's major gift should the art be accepted. Foreshadowing Fiona's future Paris quest, Nora had been a model in the Paris of the 1920's and received the paintings and drawings as payment for her work.
Underlying every story and character in this masterful novel rests the foundational issue that Makkai is addressing — family. Yale is distant from his mother, a minor Hollywood actress who he has only seen twice in his life, and his emotionally distant father. Fiona is alienated from her parents because of their rejection of her AIDS infected brother. Nora is in conflict with her son who is committed to denying her wish to donate the art to a museum. And Fiona herself, is divorced and estranged from her daughter whom she hasn't seen for years. The only character who seems to have a loving parent is Charlie whose mother totally accepts his life choices but who can't save her son from the killing virus.
Perhaps the "great believers" of the title are those who continue to hold the hope that family can remain the solid foundation in a world of constant change and struggle. Parents and children and their multi-faceted relationships are the core element of this novel. No easy answers are provided, but Makkai makes the case for patience, tolerance, acceptance, understanding and perseverance as the basis for relationships that can stand the stress over time and life events. Fiona's commitment to stay in Paris and work at re-connecting with her daughter and granddaughter provide some hope for this belief.
Makkai's novel is one of the ten finalists for the 2019 Vermont Book Award, sponsored by the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. This is the fifth year of this award, comprising $5,000 and a unique statue for the winner. The award is given to "honor work of outstanding literary merit by Vermont authors and celebrates the long tradition of literature in the state."
Nine judges — writers, teachers, librarians, and citizens who are
"passionate supporters of literature in Vermont" — choose a winner among ten books nominated by a committee of independent Vermont booksellers in four categories: Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, Children's Literature, and Poetry.
I read and reviewed the 10 finalists for this award in 2017 and again in 2018, and I hope to do so again this year. In doing so, I've wondered how I would go about choosing the "best" if I were a judge. By what criteria would I choose in such fundamentally different genres? How does one compare a novel like Makkai's, a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and named a Top Ten Book of the Year by the New York Times, to a book written for children or to a remarkable graphic novel like Jason Lutes' "Berlin?" What does "best" mean?
It would feel like being asked to choose the "best of Fair" among an eggplant, a tomato, a Jersey heifer, a hand-sewn quilt, and an apple pie at the Vermont State Fair. By what criteria do you judge the best among such distinctive categories? Perhaps the Vermont College of Fine Arts will rethink the prize and find a way to honor all ten of the nominees without forcing the judges to pick the "best."
The winner of the Vermont Book Award will be announced at a gala event in Montpelier on Saturday, Nov. 9. Whichever one of these 10 books is eventually judged to be "the best," don't miss reading Makkai's novel. It's a worthy contender.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at EpsteinReads.com where you will also find more than 1,000 suggestions for 'what to read next.'