1987. St. Martin’s Press. Paperback. 630 pages.
From: the public library
Recommended by: Jenny of Jenny’s Books within a review of Dave Cullen’s Columbine.
In a nutshell:
Journalist Randy Shilts describes, in detail, the course of the AIDS epidemic in America from 1980 to 1985.
I’ve been living with And the Band Played On for the last three weeks, carting it around on metro rides, opening it up for a few pages’ worth before going to bed. I have been compulsively telling my friends the exasperating details of how the AIDS epidemic was mishandled by so many.
And the Band Played On is a long book, no doubt about it. It’s helpfully written in short, energetic chunks: Shilts dashes around from East Coast to West Coast, jumping from the developments of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, to the different political and public health atmospheres of New York City and San Francisco, to the scientific research being conducted in Maryland and Paris.
This is a long book where the length itself serves a purpose. It may seem repetitious to read about yet another funds request denied by the government, or yet another Gay Men’s Health Crisis committee meeting that ended in tension and frustration. To me, however, reading such a detailed account about AIDS had the effect of making me vicariously feel the frustration those in trenches must have felt, as they suffered through years of the illness being dismissed or ignored, even while more and more people died. True, I could have learned the outline of events and problems through a shorter book, but the impact emotionally would not have been the same.
And The Band Played On is a highly passionate book. Shilts indicts many for their prioritizing of political capital, prestige and other pursuits over the lives of those at great risk for AIDS. Among his targets are: The Reagan administration, the National Institute of Health, certain gay political leaders in San Francisco and New York City, journalists, and the blood bank industry (including the Red Cross). At a congressional hearing, a man with AIDS says he hopes that his epitaph “would not read that I died of red tape.” Bureaucracy is a wall against which urgent need knocks and knocks again.
Shilts’ passion also is displayed in his passages that detail the lives and deaths of the people with AIDS. I was especially moved by the story of Gary Walsh.
I picked up this book because fellow blogger Jenny said: “If you are ever going to read a book about a national tragedy, it should be And the Band Played On.” I am so glad I took up her recommendation, because this is truly an unforgettable book. Not only did I learn so much about what happened with the AIDS epidemic at the start, but it made me think about what role I would have played if I had been in the thick of it. Would I have too easily succumbed to the bureaucracy or would I have taken risks to do what was right?
Don Francis pounded the table with his fist. The other officials from the Centers for Disease Control exchanged vaguely embarrassed glances. The blood bankers were becoming visibly angry.
“How many people have to die?” shouted Francis, his fist hitting the table again. “How many deaths do you need? Give us the threshold of death that you need in order to believe that this is happening, and we’ll meet at that time and we can start doing something.” p. 220
September 22  – Matt Krieger’s Journal
Despair is what I hear in Gary’s voice tonight . . . He has just reason for despair. He fell down three times today when his legs simply gave out on him. He had an infection in one eye and now the same infection in the other eye . . .
I wonder how he can sustain this relentless series of devastating and painful illnesses. Horribly, I recognize that dark corner in my mind that wishes it were all over and I could talk about Gary and his illnesses in the past tense.
My mind plays that game. Sometimes I think it is all over. Gary is dead. Back in the eighties, I had a best friend and former lover, a wonderful man whom I loved very deeply, and he suffered and he died in that terrible epidemic that hit the gay community nationally, the disease we hardly remember now. It was called AIDS.” p. 373
What others have said:
A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “And the Band Played On is an intense piece of journalism that explores the AIDS epidemic in social, political and personal level. It is a lucid and stunning indictment of public policy toward the vicious disease that has coalesced into an extremely serious serious health threat in a matter of months.”
Open Mind, Insert Book – “It’s horrifying, gritty and intense, and it will stay with you. Please don’t let the size intimidate you- the subject is important, and Shilts’s style is beautiful.”
Reggie’s Reviews – Accounts of historical events and publicly verifiable facts are mixed with imaginative reconstructions of meetings and conversations that Shilts was not privy to . . . Shilts should have decided whether he wanted to write a novel or a non-fiction account, and then stuck with it. All the same, the book is a monumental achievement, well deserving of its acclaim.