Whenever people suggest to me, either explicitly or otherwise, that the writing world is a meritocracy, that people eventually get what they deserve and the rest fall out, that the world, in short, is a fair world, I think of Patrick Giles. “I never established myself as a freelancer,” he’d say, frustrated with the course of his career. “Editors like my work but they wonder where I’ve been. There’s this hole in my resume from when I worked on AIDS.” It sounded absurd, but then again it was true. Throughout the 80s and into the 90s Patrick gave up writing to become a full-time AIDS activist, journalist, caretaker. “Making daily phone calls to friends or fellow AIDS workers to ask, ‘Who died last night?’” he once described it, “or throwing out another address book freighted with too many dead names.” It wasn’t the sort of thing that made you a lot of useful contacts in the magazine industry.
Patrick died last week of cancer. He was not yet fifty. In the last ten years he had managed to get back to doing what he most loved, writing literary and music criticism—he knew an incredible amount about opera—and working on a novel. He was also publishing more and more, in the Yale Review and, interestingly given his background, the New York Sun—“They took me to a party and this little man walks up and says, ‘Hello, I’m Hilton Kramer,’” Patrick told me, scandalized. “It was like someone had come up to me and said, ‘Hi, I’m Joseph Goebbels.’” Things were happening for him. A few months ago he was called out by name by James Wood in the New Republic. It got his gall up—Wood had, as he sometimes will, taken something out of context and misconstrued it—but he was excited, too, and engaged.
I don’t know exactly how it happened—whether it was growing up gay in a Catholic household in Brooklyn, or during the AIDS epidemic, or a combination of these—but literature had clearly saved Patrick’s life, and he was true to it. He was awkward in person, a little, and he once described meeting Susan Sontag, whom he loved. He said the author of “Notes on Camp” was aloof at first, frosty, but that he’d made some comment about an obscure book he’d read on her recommendation—he’d read so many books—and soon they were off, talking happily for hours. I believed it. At that time, over a year ago, n+1 had put out a stapled prototype and nothing else, and most professional writers not related to us by blood didn’t want anything to do with us. Patrick didn’t care. He undertook to write a long appreciation of the difficult American novelist James McCourt. It appeared at the very end of our first issue, a passionate, stirring tribute to a still-living writer who had described the dying world of gay high culture. “And now it’s over,” Patrick wrote. “With the promise of better times, gay people have fled their own culture as if all that was left of it was a charnel house, as if centuries of accumulated identity also perished from AIDS.” And yet, he went on, it wasn’t entirely over. “There is a way, after all, to make those voices and jokes and old tunes and times sound again, to keep their defiant gracefulness stirring the night air.”
One does so by writing well, was the idea. But to write so well, with such devotion, for a magazine that not only is not paying you, but that might not ever even publish an issue—it’s hard to describe the gratitude that this inspires, and the awe.
Patrick fell ill last summer and spent a lot of time in the hospital. He was doing badly, but by this spring he had recovered, and we began discussing another piece he might write: Patrick had praised to me, at great length, the interminable sex scene in Harold Brodkey’s story, “Innocence” (“it makes Roth look like a Boy Scout,” he promised), and we thought it would be interesting for him to describe what it was like to read the scandalous heterosexual novels of the 1960s as a boy. It didn’t happen, though Patrick, despite publishing more widely now, was game. In one of his last emails to me he described a conversation he’d had with an editor. “He asked me who I wrote for. I said, the Yale Review (‘uh-huh’) and then I said the Sun (‘mm’) and also, I said, I write for this new magazine, it’s called n+1, do you know it? He gasped. ‘You write for them?’ I was impressed. I haven’t had a reaction like that since I wrote for HomoXtra.”
I wanted to put this on our subscription envelopes but it was deemed too long. I wonder what Patrick wrote for HomoXtra.