An Out-of-Print Novel About Gay Activism, with a Trump Stand-In as Its Villain

On page 28 of “People in Trouble,” Sarah Schulman’s
underappreciated 1990 novel of the AIDS crisis in New York, a
middle-aged resident of the East Village named Peter is jogging along
the East River, thinking about global warming, when he passes a shiny
new development called Downtown City, the brainchild of a real-estate
magnate named Ronald Horne. It’s Horne’s first appearance in the book,
and he turns out to be its bogeyman: an egomaniacal blowhard, an uptown
peddler of conservative law-and-order nostalgia, a wealthy celebrity who
is famous primarily for being a wealthy celebrity. His head is large,
his hairline blond and receding. His buildings mash up suburban
predictability with touches of aristocratic pretension, like gold trim
and imported palm trees. Put otherwise: he’s Donald Trump.

I first read the novel in the summer of 2015. Trump was making noise in
the Republican primaries, but it would be another year before he became
an oppressive fixture of my daily mental life. Nonetheless, it was
almost immediately obvious to me, as it has been to many readers, that
Ronald is Donald. When I reached the point where Horne unveils his
mayoral campaign (“For a Better America”), I chuckled. As a reader, I
was curious about whether Horne—who advocates relocating New Yorkers
with AIDS to “internment barges”—would win. Back in real life, I was
still confident that Trump wouldn’t even get his party’s nomination.

Recently, I found myself drawn back to “People in
Trouble
.”
I was looking, I think, to swap out my daily view of Trump having his
way with the Presidency for a glimpse of a skilled novelist having her
way with Trump. It only took a few pages before I remembered that Horne
is far from Schulman’s only target. He’s a devilish villain, to be
sure—that last name is not an accident—but he doesn’t unleash his damage
on the world singlehandedly. Schulman lays a great deal of blame closer
to home—or my home, anyway. In…

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