By Sarah Schulman
New York: A Dutton Book, 1995
ISBN # 0-525-93790-0
232 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2008

Sarah Schulman has created a brilliant, angry, touching and challenging novel of homosexual life is a particular “community” of the lower east side of NY city in the 1990s. We follow the lives of three narrators. The primary person is Rita Weems, a Jewish girl born in Queens in 1959. The second, and most angry of the three is Dave, from a upper middle class Jewish family, was born about 1960. Finally there is Killer, a woman younger than the other two and from an underclass non-Jewish family.

All three are homosexuals and Dave is dying of AIDS. They know each other well and are all residents of Rat Bohemia. This is not quite a location, it is a state of mind, though these three do live on the lower east side. The image comes from Rita, herself a rat control worker with the city’s department of pest control. She draws the analogy of the rats, who can’t be killed off. Individuals can be killed, but they multiply too quickly for the population to be defeated. They live adaptive lives and, as a group, can continue to live in virtually any environment. That’s the “rat” part of the analogy. The “rats” are generally hated by society which tries many ways to rid itself of them. Rita maintains there is only one way to really do it – shoot them. The “Bohemia” is not quite our normal use of the term. We tend to think romantically of folks who have dropped out of society and are either contemptuous of standard society, or just so disgusted with it they don’t care. The model that Rita seems to have in mind is closer to the latter, it is the beatniks of the 1950s, especially those who were also on heroin.

Yet she has something a bit different in mind. This community is one of young homosexuals who have basically dropped out of straight society and are living at a time of the explosion of AIDS in the gay community. Each of the main characters is seriously estranged from his or her own family, rages against that family, and yet is utterly compulsive about the family’s view of them. They don’t have the family’s love and they desperately want it and are enraged at the family’s not accepting their life mode. Dave seems to capture this rage when he says:

“But there is not enough anger for everything that makes me angry. And there is not enough grief for my grief. Learning this fact / insight / lesson / inauguration / design is so painful. Because now, at age thirty-four, getting tired, having had my first symptom, I really know what it is I’m going to miss out on.”

These are the residents of Rat Bohemia, and it is not a pleasant story. Yet Schulman writes a powerful and persuasive novel. The notion of “persuasive” is difficult for me. I must admit I don’t know the world of Rat Bohemia in the slightest, and while I’m certainly aware of the gay community, I’m a straight guy born before WWII and mainly unaware of the gay world. Further, make no mistake, Rat Bohemia is not primarily about the gay community in general. Rat Bohemia is a very special state of mind that includes FOUR main factors:

  1. Being gay
  2. Being rejected by one’s family
  3. Living on the outside edge of the society’s economic life
  4. Faced with AIDS, either directly, like Dave, or because of one’s male friends, as with Rita and Killer.

That’s a world I have no first hand knowledge of at all, so when I grant author Schulman with being “persuasive,” it isn’t by a comparison with my knowledge or experience, it is a credit to the power and passion of her writing.

Reading this novel was a strange experience for me. I was so foreign to lots of it. First, of course, there was the whole culture of homosexuality and especially the “Rat Bohemia” version. But it was much more. There was such a cultural age gap that I was often sort of exasperated with the characters. David had a lover, Don, who died of AIDS. The funeral cost $15,000 and it was sort of startling to me that he was regarded as very strange since he “hesitated” to ask Don’s family for financial help with the funeral expenses. I was quite taken aback. Two adult men in their thirties, one, David an author who’d published several books. And there is even a consideration one would go to Don’s family, from whom Don was completely estranged, and ask for money? That just shocked me. I come from a tradition of working class folks where once one becomes an adult (and in my day that meant about 18), you paid your own way and didn’t even consider going to family for funds unless it was a dramatic and profound need.

I think in this novel that sort of behavior was an odd mix of both cultures. (the Rat Bohemian one and that of modern American youth). As author Schulman presents it, the motivations are first the bitter anger of the characters at their family’s behaviors in not accepting their homosexual life styles, and the generational change in which there is a very different notion of entitlement. I’m so used to one being 100% responsible for one’s own financial needs, and even working in the opposite direction – once I began to work for pay I expected that as time went on I would be helping my parents out as they would have needs. Even though I experience this change in generational attitudes of the past 30-40 years, Schulman presents it in such an “in your face” manner that it startled me.

I also find it rather fascinating that my own seven children, all independent and in their 30s – 40s, seem to assume much of the “old” world of values and are constantly taking care of me and their mother, my former wife. Thus Schulman’s presents some eye opening moments and a challenge to my world of values.

Shulman does paint a fascinating picture of a rather confused set of feelings which she places on the members of the Rat Bohemian culture. They are typically facing three significant hardships. AIDS or the fear of AIDS, a troubled if not disastrous relationship with their immediate families from whom most are radically estranged, and a similar disenfranchisement from the general society. Now two of those, the family and society, are ones where humans do choose values and modes of behavior. However, the AIDS obstacle seems much more to be a horror that arises within nature and not with human values. Yet in the minds of most of her characters their “enemies” are not separated out very well, and the AIDS issue seems often to come back to somehow be the fault of family or society in general.

There might be some justification for some of that view. If families and society exile the homosexual community from general society, then it might well make the behaviors leading to AIDS more common. But, at least in the 1990s which Schulman is describing, there seemed to be a defiance in many members of the Rat Bohemia culture from taking sensible protections from contracting AIDS or in changing any behaviors of their own at all.

This leads me to another puzzle in understanding that particular culture, that of Rat Bohemia. In the few folks of homosexual culture whom I have known, they tended to live lives much more like any heterosexual couple than in the mode of Rat Bohemia. Down the block from me there is a middle aged, middle class couple of guys. They have been living in their very lovely home for quite a few years now, seemingly a rather “normal” couple like others us, who care deeply for each other and live lives of a “couple.” But the members of Schulman’s Rat Bohemia seem to despise such a life. They seem to reject the notion of love in relationship, and seek only sex, preferably with as many different partners as possible. They even are aware of the dangerousness of this sort of behavior, and just don’t care. In their own minds they seem to rush back to even blame this risky behavior on families who have rejected them or on the society which hasn’t accepted them. Those influences would certainly take their toll, but seldom in the analyses and behaviors of her characters is there any personal responsibility accepted for their own choices.

It was just a very strange world for me to read about.

I appreciate the well-written, blunt and bold portrait she has painted, and it has made me sit quite a few times after reading this or that chapter and think about these things. However, given the fact that I virtually never cross paths with the folks of her novel I don’t know how much it will ever impact my relationship with folks, even homosexual folks. The small group of homosexuals whom I’ve known seem definitely not to live within the culture of Rat Bohemia.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu