Larry Kramer spent a big chunk of the 1980s demonizing former New York Mayor Ed Koch -- "pig" and "murderer" were two favorite terms -- for not responding more fully to the city's AIDS crisis. After two years of this treatment, Koch finally agreed to talk with gay activists. But when the meeting day rolled around, Kramer's fellow activists at the Gay Men's Health Crisis -- an organization he had helped found -- thought it best that Kramer not attend. Outraged, Kramer immediately resigned. Koch hadn't heard the last of Kramer, though. After losing his race for reelection and leaving the mayor's mansion, Koch moved, of all places, to the same Fifth Avenue apartment building where Kramer dwelled. Koch got a peace order prohibiting Kramer from talking to him -- but one day when Kramer was with his dog Molly at the mailboxes, there was the former mayor. Looking down at his dog, Kramer said, "Molly, that's the man who murdered so many of Daddy's friends."
Twenty-three essays -- and plenty of anecdotes like that one -- make up editor Lawrence D. Mass' "We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer." It's a book that paints a striking portrait of an angry, determined and sometimes vicious activist whose impact is still being measured. The collection contains a succinct biographical piece on Kramer by Patrick Merla, as well as a handful of essays about his two major literary works, the novel "Faggots" and the play "The Normal Heart." Written by an eclectic crowd, from Tony Kushner to Calvin Trillin, the essays are full of intimate and insightful nuggets, though a few of them, such as Douglas Sadownick's 23-page piece (larded with 70 footnotes), read like homework. There aren't many critical views of Kramer here -- probably because the collection's editor is a staunch admirer and a close friend.
Many of the essays argue for Kramer's status as a significant literary figure -- a status that continues to be in doubt. Writer Michael Denneny posits that "it was only his stunning ability to use language, to speak in public and write in fury, that gave him any political position at all." Yet it becomes clear, especially in the interview between Mass and Kramer that closes the book, that Mass has unsuccessfully rallied for this idea of Kramer as a brilliant writer. What is revealed is that it's the personal and political messages behind Kramer's works that are truly visionary and moving. As Joseph Papp, the producer of "The Normal Heart" at the New York Public Theater, once put it, "This is one of the worst things I've ever read -- and I'm crying."
The haunting question that lingers in these essays is whether the essential message Kramer has devoted his life to -- that we must love one another or die, to borrow this book's title -- has been heeded by the gay community. In the sharpest and most contemporary essay in the collection, Gabriel Rotello, author most recently of "Sexual Ecology," maintains that "Larry Kramer's central point, that gay men need to love more and fuck less -- is still, like most prophecy, undigested and unaccepted by the very people who need it most."