During the first few years of the AIDS crisis, the darkness and confusion surrounding the disease were so complete that reason, no matter how firm its foundation, often lost out to fear and hysteria. Gay lit has carved out significant space to honour the stories of the resilient individuals and communities who pushed courageously through those years of discrimination and negligence. Darren Greer’s Advocate, on the other hand, presents a harsh, retrospective portrait of those whose ignorance and moral failings perpetuated the violence.
Greer’s protagonist, Jacob McNeil, is a reclusive, gay men’s health counsellor living in Toronto and consumed by his work. His grandmother’s imminent death calls him home to the small town of Advocate, Nova Scotia, where he is forced to confront the ugly history that has loomed over him his whole life. The novel’s narrative slides between Jacob’s childhood and the present, as Jacob must reckon with the legacy of his grandmother, who embodied the town’s panicked, punitive reaction to David – her son and Jacob’s uncle – an exile who returned home in the early 1980s in search of a quiet place to wither and die from AIDS.
Advocate may be intuitively familiar to many readers from Canadian small towns. But the more complex, unresolved tensions in the McNeil household become apparent only slowly, and with careful inspection, like cracks in the wall of a spectacularly well-dusted old Victorian house. The town’s unstoppable turn against David, and his own physical deterioration, are harrowing to read. But the deep, conflicted shame that consumes his mother is equally gruesome, at times even spectacular. This is especially true as encountered through the eyes of a barely pubescent Jacob, who hardens harshly into adulthood. The paralyzing resentment the adult Jacob feels toward his grandmother quickly begins to parallel her own rigid, dogmatic approach to life. “You’re so much like her,” Jacob’s mother tells him, resignedly.
At the core of Advocate are questions about legacy and forgiveness. What is to be done with a town – like many others – unable to acknowledge its grave failure? And what can survivors of the crisis, and those left working in its shadow, do with that history? Greer offers no easy answers, but provides a kind of optimism that highlights the resourcefulness inherent in society’s most marginalized. The only citizens of Advocate who don’t give into feverish intolerance are the poor, folks from the local reserve, and the town’s only black resident. The intense power of small-town women, and their fraught relationship with gay men, also emerges as a crucial theme.
Advocate is a juicy read, with so much more at stake than a typical family drama. Although the time-switching and extended exposition is somewhat dizzying, Jacob’s voice and affect are strong and consistent. Of course, the scope of the book is, and feels, limited. The politics and lifestyles of the big city, and AIDS’s disproportionate effect on poor and racialized people are reduced to vague foils to the privileged, repressed backdrop of Advocate. But Greer has made an intentional intervention here, choosing not to tell the broad story of AIDS then and now, but instead to zoom in on a provincial Canadian context and unpack the echoes of the crisis in one far-flung, traditional town. Greer patiently elaborates on guilt, regret, and the possibility of forgiveness. And at this, he is wholly successful. –Jonathan Valell