Paul Monette describes himself as a poster child for AIDS. The 45-year-old Los Angeles writer has survived the deaths of two lovers and countless friends, and he carries the virus that has claimed the lives of a reported 108,731 people in the U.S. Nevertheless, he keeps working: His fourth book about the disease, the novel Halfway Home, has just been published by Crown, and last month an episode he cowrote for thirtysomething was aired. In it, adman Peter Montefiore gets the news that he is HIV-positive.
Is AIDS Monette's only subject? Yes, in the sense that families were Tolstoy's ''only'' subject. His work details the way a calamity changes everything in a stricken community from sibling rivalry to Thanksgiving dinners. Monette's first book about AIDS, Borrowed Time (1988), which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, described one of his lovers' futile battle against AIDS and the shock waves it sent through their circle of friends. His 1988 book of poems, Love Alone, and his 1990 novel, Afterlife, explored the dilemma of those who outlast their loved ones. Now, in Halfway Home, Monette tells the story of two brothers one gay and dying, the other straight. Without irony, Monette describes the novel as a joyous book. And it is.
Joy is something Monette exudes even as he is filled with sorrow. One moment he is relishing an airy croissant on a visit to Manhattan, and the next he is speaking of the death of a lover. ''No one could tell me how to live my life after that,'' he says. ''But I had to hold out for life, do the best I could to make life feel like life instead of like dying and not to be consumed by the rage over the indifference and the hate.''
In holding out for life, Monette, who is at work on his autobiography, admits he scarcely knows what to say about AIDS anymore. He knows only that he must continue saying something: ''I understand that I have become a poster child, that there has to be some face to what it means to be sero-positive, what it means to be fighting all this death.''