David Menadue is gay rights activist from the eighties and early nineties who holds the record for the longest surviving Australian with full blown AIDS. He is without doubt a courageous man, who has lived a life no-one would envy in terms of its time in hospital, loss of friends and lovers, and public exposure to pretty hateful commentary. Strangely while the hateful commentary is courteously dismissed by Menadue in this book the tone of his writing is determined by it. For much of the narrative there is a defensive style which seems unwarranted, since the reader must be sympathetic to have picked up and purchased his volume. The fact that he has been the subject of much public criticism and quite some scrutiny means that he is never able to state his case boldly and on its own terms. He writes in many ways to answer those who are not in the book. This does not encourage the reader, on the contrary there is a sense that the reader must be one of them, one of those who has read and condoned previous criticisms. There is an upside to this, Menadue is a writer with some passion and inexhaustible conviction and though he answers questions we have not asked we can learn much about the aggressive and unjust nature of discrimination against gay men in the seventies and eighties, as well as the discrimination against those living with HIV and AIDS in the eighties and nineties. But it doesn’t capture the reader, informative yes but moving no.
Menadue is much more moving in the centrepiece of his narrative where he describes his childhood, relationships with his mother and his siblings. Precisely because this has not been the subject of public criticism the defensive tone is absent and the reader is offered a more open view of Menadue and his place in the world. His loving representations of small town Victoria and his church going sermon giving Grandfather are graceful and honest. About his family and the places he lived as a child he has the mixed feelings we all have: that was good, that was great, that wasn’t; glad it is over. This openness means his writing is less determined, less corralled by politics. There can be doubt and uncertainty but when he describes the political machinations of gay organizations and the bureaucratic responses to HIV/AIDS there can be no doubt and no uncertainty. No discussion at all really, for there to be any is to introduce the possibility that the bastards who were so unkind might have been right. They weren’t and aren’t but the wounds still smart and Menadue will be damned before he opens the door to that kind of cruelty.
There may well be comparisons to Tim Conigrave’s Holding the Man which is, no doubt, a much better book. Honest, grubby, heartbroken and dirty Conigrave tells his story without worrying too much what went wrong. Menadue is concerned with what went wrong, and how it looked. He tries to correct things, set things straight (haha!) but there is not so much to do with this. Past battles, old wounds don’t make a great read when you’re still trying to win those battles and stitch those wounds. I think though, given that Menadue is still alive and Conigrave is dead and his book published after he died, that the fight is worth fighting and Menadue is tough warrior to be admired.