No-Accounts: Compassion and courage lift up two men in compelling AIDS novel

Singer Amy Grant once observed that, in her experience, “…people who have been through painful, difficult times are filled with compassion”. As a US intelligence officer, author Tom Glenn lived through the waning days of the Vietnam War. He witnessed the mismanagement of the negotiated “peace”, then endured the failure which was the Fall of Saigon; saving as many people in the end as was humanly possible. Glenn returned to the US, a shattered man, determined to pick up the pieces. Part of his own healing process was found in writing and music and in reaching out to help others.

Tom Glenn’s novel, No-Accounts, is a story about two men who come to know each another during the most trying of circumstances. One will soon die; the other will help him through his last months. The journey will change them both and all the readers who accompany Peter and Martin on this wrenching odyssey.

No-Acounts by Tom Glenn
No-Acounts by Tom Glenn

To say this novel is non-traditional borders on understatement. The term, “Love story” conjures romance in our couple-saturated culture. Yet, No Accounts is a love story about the deep friendship that develops between a gay dancer dying of AIDS and the straight college music professor who becomes his “buddy.”

Peter (gay) and Martin (straight) bond in Peter’s squalid apartment. The year is 1985, a time when no one is exactly sure how the AIDS virus is transmitted. Martin gets involved because he has lost his favorite student to the horrible disease. And Martin has the time. His wife has left him and he and his teenage daughter have become alienated.

The relationship between Peter and Martin develops slowly. They are wary of each other and clash during their first awkward meeting. Peter cannot comprehend why Martin would consider volunteering to care for “fags dying of AIDS.” Their connection is not always pretty; think vomit, latex gloves, disinfectant. The miracle of Glenn’s writing is that he conveys all the grim details of Peter’s descent toward death in language that transcends these very descriptions. He leads us toward the beauty of intimacy that results when Peter and Martin dare to care for one another.

Both men do the hard work to plumb their own depths, each aided by the other’s often irreverent questions and insights. Peter scrutinizes his life without mercy. He wants to feel he has accomplished some good beyond the narcissism of his past. Martin needs to salvage his life’s meaning in the wake of his messy divorce. Their friendship sparks courage, leading to transformation for Peter and for Martin. They listen to each other.
Although Peter is ill and needs care, the relationship is not lopsided. He facilitates healing communication between Martin and his estranged daughter, Catherine. In one of the book’s most dramatic scenes, Peter reaches out to his suicidal friend, Billy, who also suffers from AIDS. And Martin’s presence makes it possible for Peter to forge a new bond with his macho and emotionally distant father, Roger.

Glenn’s skill with dialogue appears effortless. The story flows – each page increasingly poignant as Martin and Peter reveal themselves in conversations so realistic the reader always feels “present” in the narrative:

Peter raised his head. He’d been weeping.
“Martin, do you forgive me for being gay?”
Martin watched him.
“Do you forgive me for getting AIDS?” Peter’s face
contorted. “Do you think God forgives me?” Peter shook his
head. Tears started down his cheeks. “I’m one of His mistakes.”

Although the story concerns Peter’s dying I did not find the book depressing and I have read it twice. What emerges are startlingly clear portraits of characters learning about the importance of love, the power of forgiveness, and ways to navigate the complex road we call life.

The prose itself is luminous:

Memory fragments flitted like scraps of distant lightning.

At one point Martin reflects, “When love was more important than anything else, people could create incandescent moments.”

In telling this story, Tom Glenn creates a series of incandescent moments that light our understanding of what it means to be alive even in death’s shadow. Glenn’s own work with AIDS patients no doubt informs the spirit of empathy that infuses No-Accounts.

As Peter’s condition and appearance worsen, there are tender scenes in which Martin holds Peter to comfort him. And Roger (Peter’s dad, with whom he has reconciled) carries his son so Peter can reach up to place a star at the top of his Christmas tree.

Tom Glenn has walked this path. Helping someone die takes a lot of love. So does writing about it so brilliantly. This is a novel to read many times over, until the lessons sink in.

(Lede photo credit ~ Giovanni Dall’Orto)