Charles Ortleb takes a comic look at the AIDS establishment and the effect of the HIV-AIDS theory on gay life in the nineties in IRON PETER, a satirical novel. Peter, a beautiful young man who arrives in New York City fresh out of college, is determined to "assassinate" the AIDS epidemic. In the course of his researches in the library and the bars, he realizes that the AIDS scientists, the AIDS activists, and the entire AIDS establishment are hooked on a false theory (HIV=AIDS) that is leading them nowhere. To make matters worse, the AIDS scientists, in league with the pharmaceutical companies, are prescribing highly toxic drugs (AZT, DDI, etc.) to AIDS patients, thus adding thousands of unnecessary deaths to the epidemic. When Peter meets a renegade heiress whose peak experiences were Woodstock and Watergate, the gay and the (sort of) straight world are united in a crusade to expose this AIDSgate scandal to the world.
David Judson, of the Gannett News Service:
"Iron Peter is a look at group dynamics, group psychology, media self-censorship, academic jealousy and the potential for falsehood to triumph amid fear and suspicion. That's a story at least as old as the New Testament."
"a satirical fantasy laced with literate one-liners"
"unquestionably an original look at society and the deadly disease"
"Like the protagonist in Iron Peter, Ortleb is certain to face angry charges of blasphemy for the tale he tells. Many are sure to say it is a fate he deserves."
Celia Farber, in Continuum:
"Iron Peter feels more like a bomb than a book - utterly subversive, searing, open-eyed and true. When you read it, you see why it was rejected by no less than thirty five publishers, many of them gay. I have called the book the Animal Farm of the AIDS era."
Stacey Szewczyk in the New York Press:
"A rebuke of the gay community . . . and of the medical establishment, which has relegated AIDs to a research ghetto where injections of AZT are administered with the zeal of big cancer bucks at Sloan-Kettering. Iron Peter is Ortleb’s resounding ‘Fuck you!’ to both of these establishments."
Excerpts from IRON PETER
All excerpts copyright©1997 by Charles Ortleb, all rights reserved
Peter was dressed completely in red and black when he arrived in the overwhelming snow of Christmas, 1995. Veiled in white, Manhattan startled him. It looked like the storybook image he memorized in childhood. There were carolers in costumes from the nineteenth century on one of the street corners he passed on his way to his hotel in the West Forties.
As the dark descended and the giant snowflakes obscured their vision, strangers paused to feast on Peter's magnificence. Suddenly, with Peter's figure thrown into relief against the accumulating snow, the city was transfixed in a mysterious moment of deep eroticism. Peter's path left an aroused chain of men and women. But mostly men.
They need not have doubted the reality of what was before them. This was the most beautiful man they had seen in years. Maybe decades. This vision hurt some and left scars of envy. But it also healed and inspired and sent prodigal bodies back to the gymnasium. Some would end up in bed that night, their minds in a dither as they searched the slide show of their day for that timeless face, that knightly body and that amazing blond hair on the capless wonder.
For some of them, Peter's presence was validation of the most important decision they had made in their lives. They said to themselves, "This is why I live in Manhattan. If I ever think of leaving this city, may God strike me dead. This is the greatest city in the world."
His presence at the hotel caused quite a stir as he brushed the snow from himself and his bags. My, my, what has Santa brought, thought the hotel's manager as he passed Peter in the lobby. Some of the employees immediately suspected that he was a new soap opera star, but if so, what was he doing here? Had he had a fight with his lover or girlfriend? There were some bets, derived from a little wishful thinking, that he was in town to do underwear ads for Calvin Klein. The big question for every person who saw him was, why is he alone?
As Peter stood at the registration desk, a hush fell over the lobby as if it were the vestibule of a church. The bellhops wondered if they should offer him any help with his bath. Did he want any extra towels or condoms?
Peter had heard that the city was inundated with AIDS propaganda, but the reality and sheer density of it overwhelmed him. He found it in every kind of gay venue. No one had protected the borders of the young gay kingdom. The AIDS activists had overrun the entire realm. There were AIDS posters and AIDS flyers and AIDS newspapers in every gay health club, movie house, theater, restaurant, bar, and bathhouse. Also all over bus stops, subways and taxicabs. New York City looked like one big AIDS prevention campaign. This was not the New York of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Attila the AIDS Hun had been here.
All the signs and posters drove home the same message. HIV is the cause of AIDS. HIV is certainly the cause of AIDS. HIV is absolutely the cause of AIDS. A night didn't go by at the bars when Peter didn't hear this message peppering conversations. This truly was the virus that protested too much. No sooner had two men introduced themselves than they were pledging allegiance to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. One night, in one of his mischievous and impious experiments, Peter loudly referred to HIV as the virus that causes gas and the whole bar fell into horrified silence.
AIDS solidarity was everywhere. The solidarity of frightened, deceived and comatose souls.
One morning back in the beginning of January, Peter had gone to a newsstand on 57th Street to search for something he had heard rumors about at his university in Colorado. People seemed to lower their voices and bow their heads in shame when mentioning it. Did Peter know that there was a local gay publication in New York City that was so controversial and so hated that it received bomb threats and was boycotted by all of the AIDS activist groups?
"Tell me more," said Peter. "Why would gay people want to destroy a gay publication?"
Nervously, because he was talking to the best-looking guy on campus, the other student said, "Because it says that the government is lying about the AIDS epidemic."
Peter felt weak. His legs almost buckled under him. The student grabbed Peter, to steady him. He was quite excited to have the opportunity of touching Peter.
"What is the name of that newspaper?" asked Peter.
Again, lowering his voice as though their conversation was being tapped, right there on the middle of the main campus boulevard, the student whispered "The New York Messenger."
"Yes!" said Peter. "The New York Messenger, the New York Messenger, the New York Messenger. Yes, yes, yes!" He was jumping up and down.
"Can I have a date?" the young man asked, thinking that he and Peter might have just bonded.
"No," said Peter. "But I love you for letting me know. I will always love you for telling me this." He was still jumping.
"Well, I guess I love myself for telling you this," the young man replied, disappointed.
The Messenger confirmed all his intuitions. That HIV was not the cause, that gay men were not the only victims, that a much bigger epidemic was being cruelly hidden from the American Public, that all of the toxic treatments that were being rushed into the bodies of AIDS patients were actually hastening their deaths. That those at the very top of the AIDS chain of command were dishonest, bigoted and incompetent. One was more homophobic than he was crooked. Another was dumber than he was homophobic. Another was more dishonest then he was stupid. In the body of nearly every AIDS researcher there seemed to be a used car salesman trying to get out. The Messenger published the words that Peter had longed to hear from a lover and friend and comrade throughout his lonely nights in college. Peter was convinced that he was living in a land of lies, and the despised Messenger made him feel like he was not alone.
At night, as he checked out each new bar in the city, full of the gleanings of the day's reading, Peter was trailed by admirers, but no admirer dared call Peter what they called the Messenger: paranoid and crazy. No one sneered at Peter the way they sneered at the Messenger. Gay noses did not point skyward, even though this splendid creature, day after day contained more and more of the essence of the Messenger. No, Peter's beauty was like a crucifix. It protected him from many of the AIDS Empire's activists.
Most of Peter's wannabes could never look him in the eye and attack him. They could only deflect their rage and attack the Messenger. So in his own small way Peter was now making things even worse for the despised little publication.
If the Messenger can see what's going on so clearly, why can't these gay men, Peter wondered. These guys don't need the pants-down spanking that some of them crave. They need a good slap in the face and a nice bucket of very cold water. They all need to be grabbed by the shoulders and shaken till all the red ribbons come tumbling off of them like leaves. Where was their longing for the truth? Had the batteries in their souls run down?
Most gay men were used to leaving medical and scientific matters to techno-nerds and "experts." Gay men did the AIDS Empire's hair. They designed the Empire's clothing. They wrote the Empire's mediocre novels. But AIDS science was both beneath them and above them. They wanted nothing to do with it. It was that wretched high school course down the hall taught by the farmer who picked his teeth with a toothpick during class while going on incomprehensibly about oxygen, hydrogen, and which cheerleaders had the biggest tits. Did scientists know whether Liza Minnelli was on or off the wagon? Could scientists properly marinate a piece of lamb and match it with the right red wine? Did they have an educated thing to say about supertitles at the opera? These gay men didn't want to go back down the hallway, clasping their books to their breasts gay-style, to re-enter the dungeons of Chemistry and Biology. They had fulfilled those curriculum requirements in a state of existential dread and had gotten on with their liberal arts destinies as quickly as possible. And yet the medical "experts" who were all too willing to take their friends and lovers, one by one, in boxes to family cemetery plots, hailed from those yucky science classes down the hall.
Throughout January, the one thing the gay men Peter met in bars (except the doctors) had in common was that they all made it clear, over and over, that they were not doctors.
"I'm not a doctor," said the young poet who was taking the highly toxic DDI, "and neither are you."
"I'm sorry for daring to speak on the subject of AIDS," responded Peter, "It's true. I am a mere mortal. I'll try to confine my conversations to Fire Island and bronzer."
"I'm not a doctor," said the lighting designer to Peter, "I have to listen to the medical experts."
"You don't have to listen to anybody but Sondheim." rejoined Peter.
"I can't start medical school now," said a cake decorator who was still taking AZT and was beginning to look a little like Freddy Krueger.
"If just one AIDS researcher would leave science to study cake decoration, think of how many lives would be saved," responded Peter.
Exasperation was growing at a rapid clip in the AIDS activist community. Peter was the biggest challenge they had seen since the Messenger began publishing articles exposing fraud in AZT research. In that case they had stepped up their propaganda campaign to such an extent that several of the AIDS activists had been hospitalized for chanting exhaustion. But they had succeeded. Thousands of gay men had taken AZT despite the Messenger's warnings. Thousands of dead gay men. But the Messenger was not a twenty-three-year-old with a surfer's body and a drop dead gorgeous face. This very difficult case was going to call for a more persuasive approach. One of the AIDS activists who had just gotten back from a series of gay sensitivity training sessions at the National Institutes of Health was the first to put the idea on the table.
"We'd better send for the Avuncular Gay Physician."
"Oh, no, not the Avuncular Gay Physician!" several of the activists shrieked.
The activist in charge of AIDS aromatherapy said "Don't you think we should save him in case we get desperate?"
"But we are desperate. If we don't move quickly, the whole gay community will be infected with that kid's ideas."
And so, with great trepidation, a select delegation of AIDS activist leaders requested a closed door meeting with the Avuncular Gay Physician.
The leaders of all the most important divisions of AIDS activism were there. Immunology, Virology, Vaccinology, Neurology, Condomology, Behavior Modification, Propaganda, and Bar-Disco Relations. They all arrived in separate rented cars accompanied by plainclothes AIDS activists.
There was an ominous, hushed tone in the rich surroundings of the penthouse as one by one they paid their respects to the Doctor of Doctors. For many of these activists, this was their first taste of great American power and wealth. They moved into a large room paneled with dark wood and they all sat at a large round table beneath a massive chandelier. The light was low and the shadows of crises fell across their faces.
"Let us begin," said the Avuncular Gay Physician in a stately manner.
Immunology spoke first.
"Doctor of Doctors, this Goldilocks is threatening the whole AIDS empire. He's full of tricks. We must not underestimate him."
"He wouldn't be getting all of this attention if he weren't so cute," said Virology.
"Thanks to him all kinds of silly queens have been going to their dictionaries and looking up the word 'genocide,'" said Condomology.
"If people start thinking that something's wrong with the HIV test, our whole international agenda could be set back decades," cried Behavior Modification.
Propaganda asked that the lights be turned off so that the Avuncular Gay Physician could see the slides.
"Turn on the projector and lets see the first slide."
"That's him talking to a gay fireman, Doctor."
"Next," said the doctor.
"There he is with a pedicurist." They were deep in conversation and the pedicurist was staring at Peter's feet.
"That's him talking to an aide to a city councilwoman. Look at how intensely the man is studying Peter, Doctor."
"Good God! Next."
The next slide showed Peter at Splash talking to a man in a clown costume.
"Who is that gay clown?" asked the Avuncular Gay Physician.
"A man from Jersey. You can see how this could spread, Doctor. Every clown in New Jersey has probably heard Peter's story."
Bar-Disco Relations stood up and hit his fist on the table. "It's that goddamned mug of his. If he looked like Ed Asner, we wouldn't be sitting here in this situation."
"But we are, Blanche, we are," said the Doctor.
Some of the AIDS activists were so overcome by the Doctor's wit that they fell out of their chairs laughing.
"Well, he doesn't have to continue looking that good," said Neurology, ominously.
"Now, now, we won't let it come to that. Is there another slide?"
Peter did take a special interest in a very well-kept fiftyish woman who had a Garboesque face and a striking head of prematurely silver hair. She had more life in her than a twenty-year-old and she was constantly in motion at the table when she brought her friends to lunch. Somehow she knew what days Peter worked because she came in virtually every one of his lunch shifts.
Peter was intrigued by the silver lady because every time he passed her table she seemed to be saying that something sucked. The government sucked. The president sucked. Congress sucked. The media sucked. Hollywood sucked. The theater sucked. Wall Street sucked. Peter thought that she had an interesting take on things.
The woman could barely take her eyes off Peter. The intensity of her glances made Peter nervous. She looked at him as though she had known him years ago and was trying to figure out when and where.
As Peter was laying down the check one day at the woman's table, he overheard her younger companion asked her to come to a masked AIDS charity ball.
The silver woman snapped back, "Not on your life. AIDS is a racket."
"You can say that again," chimed in Peter as he walked away from the table.
When he came back for the credit card he apologized for butting in.
"Oh don't be sorry. I'm thrilled someone agrees with me. I think it's the biggest racket in history."
Peter smiled at the woman and went off with her card. Her name was Cornelia Ramsey Wade. It was an American Express Platinum card. It was not rejected.
Out of the blue she said, "Peter, You don't particularly care what women want, do you?"
"No," he replied. "Not really."
"I like that in a man," she said. "I have to know you."
"Yes, absolutely. I have to know you for a reason."
"What's the reason.'
"I don't know. But there is one. I can tell. I get vibes."
After they had ordered two vodka martinis, Peter said, "I want to know why you said that AIDS is a racket. I also want to know why you say everything in this country sucks."
"Why is AIDS a racket?"
"Can't you tell?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, "but why do you think that?"
"Well, for starters, they keep raising money and nothing really ever happens. They pretend it does, but nothing ever happens. I don't see it ending. And none of the reporting about AIDS makes much sense."
"I know a lot about AIDS."
"Well, there's the reason we met," she said. "I don't."
"What do you know a lot about?"
"That's a good question. Let me think. . . I know a lot about journalism."
"Yes, all my boyfriends have been reporters."
"Are you married?"
"Are you kidding? I said all my boyfriends have been reporters."
"Are you a reporter?"
"What do you do for a living?"
"I read books. I think. I brunch with the wolves."
"For a living?"
"I don't do anything for a living. I have something more important than a rent controlled apartment. I have a little trust fund. I am the last person in the world who should have a trust fund. But then, somebody's got to keep the Plaza and Angel's Bistro afloat."
When the waiter brought the drinks, he had a look on his face like he seen this kind of relationship frequently in the Oak Room. He knew who would be paying for the drinks.
"Tell me more about AIDS," Cornelia said.
"If you'll tell me more about journalism."
Thus did the curious intellectual marriage between the twenty-three year old assassin of the AIDS epidemic and the fifty something newspaper groupie begin.