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At Risk

Alice Hoffman

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 29, 2012
Category: Fiction

You don’t forget the books that stop you in your tracks.

 
In 1988, that book was “At Risk,” Alice Hoffman’s novel about an 11-year-old girl who gets AIDS from a blood transfusion. Think: “Ordinary People.” Think: “Terms of Endearment.”
 
Hoffman’s decision to write about an “innocent victim” was genius because the official government policy about AIDS during the 1980s was: The people who get AIDS are gay or drug users — they deserve to die. It wasn’t until 1987 that Ronald Reagan said a word about AIDS, and he didn’t exactly say he cared much. By the end of that year, 59,572 AIDS cases had been reported and 27,909 of those women and men had died.
 
“At Risk” is a straightforward novel. Victim, brother, mother, father, doctor, death. A few friends. 220 pages, brimming with clean, brisk prose. [To read an excerpt, click here.] An accessible novel — it was a Book of the Month Club main selection. (Too accessible, some reviewers thought; they compared it to ”Love Story.”) Its publisher beat big drums for it: first printing of 100,000 copies, a marketing commitment of $100,000.
 
The Amazon description says “At Risk” is for “18 and above.” I disagree. When my stepdaughter turned 11, I handed her this novel. She was not then a big reader, but such was the power of “At Risk” that she took it into her room and we didn’t see much of her for the next few days. It’s that good. [To buy the paperback, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
 
Almost 25 years later — it can’t really be a quarter of a century, and yet it is — we have another AIDS novel with a young girl at its center. “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” is one of those first novels that’s called “a stunning literary debut,” and Amazon has named it one of the dozen best books of the first half of this year. [To buy “Tell the Wolves I’m Home,” click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] 

Like Alice Hoffman’s book, “Tell The Wolves I’m Home” is set in 1987, when a great many people were so terrified of the disease they wouldn’t even call it by its name. But 14 year-old June Elbus does not have AIDS. Her uncle does. And that’s almost unthinkable, for Finn Weiss is more than a close relative — he’s pretty much the love of her young life.  
 
Finn is a painter, and a famous one. As the novel begins, he’s painting a portrait of June and her 16 year-old sister Greta. It’s the last painting he’ll ever complete; their sessions are precious. Finn is a man of secrets, and one of them is that he has a live-in lover who shows up at Finn’s funeral but is not allowed in — June’s mother believes that Toby “killed” Finn.
 
Toby persists in trying to connect with June. Soon she’s jumping on a train from her Westchester home to spend afternoons with Toby in New York; they become close friends, bound by a common love. Which is fortunate, because June and her sister have a hatefest going, and June’s mother is locked in a prison of rage and grief.
 
This is powerful stuff, and I’m not surprised that Carol Rifka Brunt won grants to work on this book. What does surprise me is that the many people who are thanked in the acknowledgments — first-rate editors and publishing executives, people I admire — missed the book’s single, glaring, almost overwhelming flaw. It’s simply this: The teenage narrator lacks a teenager’s voice. Or a teenager’s mind. In her intellectual and emotional range, she’s somewhere up there with Stephen Hawking.  

 

Because June is so precocious, we get a lot of “writing” — passages about wolves and forests and the Mozart Requiem.  We get cigarettes and liquor. And conversations about the ferocity of life in the presence of death that might make more sense in late night college bull sessions. The characters in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars would eat this kid for breakfast. And wouldn’t they have a field day mocking the novel’s title.
 
Inside this 355-page novel is a 220-page novel screaming to get out. I say this all the time. And I would fear I am becoming a crank on the point that most new fiction is too long and too overwritten and that publishers should hire me to remove 75 pages of flab in almost everything they publish, but then I look at the facts. There’s no 100,000 first printing here, no big marketing budget. This very worthy novel is going to do as well as “literary fiction” does — which is: not very — before it slowly sinks. Too bad. It could have been a contender.
 
If you’re going to read “Tell the Wolves I’m Home,” read it fast and read it for the story. Read, in other words, the latter day version of “At Risk” that it might have been.