Dallas Buyers Club and the market forces of death

On day zero of Ron Woodruff’s thirty-days-to-live death sentence, he is in two prostitutes in a muddy bullpen at a bullfighting arena. He is a gambling drunkard running from the trouble he makes for himself. He, aside from the zings and whistles granted by cocaine, whiskey, and ejaculation, is as good as dead. Intellectually, spiritually, emotionally dead.

On day one, an on-the-job electrical accident puts Woodruff in the hospital, where he finds, much to his homophobic, 1985 stereotype-informed disbelief, that he has HIV. He’s a straight man, after all. It’s not possible for him to catch HIV. So he storms out. No way, he thinks, I ain’t gay, and I’m living forever.

But Woodruff is dying. It’s impossible for him to ignore the bloody coughs whirring noises splitting open his head. He goes to the library, reads up on the studies and statistics: the disease spreads through unprotected sex between any carrier and noncarrier, gay or not; it also circulates through shared intravenous needles. Woodruff suddenly remembers a girl he once hired who had pinpricks up and down her arm, and accepts he has HIV.

He does not, however, accept the thirty day sentence. Woodruff is a stubborn, sharp cowboy: he researches the drugs that clinics worldwide are trying on the disease; he discovers a Dallas hospital is hosting a 90-day double-blind placebic trial of the newest, latest and greatest drug, AZT; and he bypasses authority in order to obtain it. But his inside man at the hospital quits, and a fainting fit puts him back in the sick house, at the mercy of doctors contractually bound to test AZT on behalf of big pharma.

It is there, alone and inches from death on a hospital gurney, that Woodruff breaks the cliché of the terminally ill bucket lister. He has neither the cash for some tour of Europe, nor the embrace of his own end such a before-I-die trip implies. The immediacy of death instead alights in him anger and determination.

It also purges his prejudices. This is epitomized in an exchange with his hospital roommate, a trans woman named Rayon who is also HIV-positive. Woodruff initially rebuffs her friendliness, but when she offers to play cards—for cash—he agrees to chat. And when his calf cramps, paralyzing him in pain, he allows her to knead it out. Woodruff’s acceptance of Rayon’s physical help—help given by a person from whom he would never, because of his prejudices, ordinarily accept it—represents a larger theme of Dallas Buyers Club: with life on the line, allies are allies regardless of their identities.

After a trip to Mexico to receive un-FDA-approved treatment, Woodruff returns and teams up with Rayon. The medicine given to him there has shored up his immune system in ways AZT could not, and Woodruff, cash-hungry, has struck a deal with his doctor to sell the cocktail of drugs that put him back on his feet. He gets the goods across the border to Dallas, but cannot breach the mostly-gay market: Woodruff neither knows anything of their community nor can leapfrog the friction of his ingrained prejudices. Without anywhere else to turn, he recruits Rayon to be his sales rep.

Their partnership proves successful, and the combination of moneymaking and self-sustaining that ensues places Woodruff in daily proximity with Dallas’s gay community. It composes the majority of the Dallas Buyers Club, i.e. the HIV-positive population willing to flout FDA law and official medical advice to procure what they believe will help them survive. Woodruff, through the vehicle of his new Buyers Club business, learns these people are much like him: desperate in the face of death, inclined to kindness, and prey to their own weaknesses. His prejudice erodes daily under the mounting evidence that Scout Finch’s timeless observation is true: “there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

When the FDA cracks down on the Dallas Buyers Club’s under-the-table operation and its members are barred from obtaining their immunological boosters, Woodruff’s façade—that moneymaking is still his primary motivation—shatters. Rayon, now Woodruff’s valued friend, dies, and his anger with the government’s nonsensical regulation and apparent apathy towards the mostly gay HIV-AIDS community transforms the Buyers Club from a business to a crusade. Woodruff, on the implicit behalf of his HIV-AIDS customers, sues the government for the right to medicate himself and fight against his impending death however he likes.

The heart of Woodruff’s story closes with the result of his lawsuit. He loses to the FDA, but upon returning to his home in Dallas receives an ovation from friends in the Buyers Club, who have gathered to congratulate his efforts. Woodruff, homophobe-turned-profiteer-turned-ally, here asks of us an uncomfortable question: What prevents our acceptance of the Other? Why does it take death to illuminate the ignorance of our prejudices?

The ties that bind in Girls, Visions and Everything

Shooting the breeze, a novel

It feels that printed in invisible ink above the first line of Sarah Schulman’s novel, Girls, Visions and Everything, is “Once upon a strange time.” Lila Futuransky, the book’s protagonist, is introduced with that air of a character in a magic kingdom: she “always knew she was an outlaw,” but is unsure of “which one.” She “endlessly [perseveres],” is young, and “[has] time.” These immediate allusions to Lila as not beginning but ongoing convey that her and her community’s life, lesbian life, has been around in New York City for a long time and requires defiant struggle.

Schulman’s method of tying Lila’s story to the greater magic kingdom (a gentrifying East Village in the 1980s) is to embody her observations in characters with demonstrably different backgrounds and then situate them in the same neighborhood. It is her vivid and unapologetic animation of these characters—how they handle poverty, discrimination, sex—that delivers an affecting portrait of life in the city; and because of their palpability the book’s societal critiques never feel pedantic or contrived.

To unite her characters and social commentary, Schulman gives Lila a proclivity for touring town. She loves to “walk the streets for hours with nowhere to go except where she [ends] up,” admiring or criticizing her block and talking with folks on the corner. She “[runs] into” a diverse palette of characters, and the chance meetings provide Schulman myriad opportunities for a colorful paragraph of backstory or Lila’s opinion. The strolls are reminiscent of the role played by the interlude chapters in The Grapes of Wrath: like Steinbeck pauses the plot to paint the road to and through Depression California, Schulman’s encounters with drug dealers, immigrants, men, and bigots (categories which often overlap) vivify city life. But where Steinbeck waxes poetic, Schulman is conversational, colloquial. She shows that New York City’s soul is in its inhabitants and their brief, usually banal chats. But Lila’s encounters are never truly shallow: through them we learn about characters’ experiences of addiction, racism, and homophobia. Their ordinary, midday banter is the poetry, and it reveals the fault lines in Schulman’s New York.

Lila is also well-equipped for the limited third person perspective Schulman employs because she is both ruminative and adventurous. This combines her serendipitous city strolls with an acute inner monologue. When Lila sees a neighborhood-watch sign that reads “’Clean Up Our Street’,” she muses that “any group of people who want to ‘clean up’ another group of people [is] usually bad news.” A downtown protest against intervention in Central America affords the observation, “in the U.S. people are allowed to be political as long as they don’t actually have an effect on anything.” Lila approaches Emily, the character with whom she falls in love and around whom she then centers her commentary on relationships, on a whimsical rebound: “Hi Emily…I just got humiliated by a woman…Want to dance with me?” Schulman weaves the exchange between broad experience and deep reflection into Lila’s personality from the get-go, giving the story an natural ability to cover an eclectic range of scenes and ideas.

The most potent method Schulman uses to explore ideas is dialogue. In addition to her casual-yet-expository streetside chats, in lengthier and more personal conversations Lila and her friends broach weighty subjects. To a poet friend, Lila proposes an idea for a story about “parents who only want…their child to fail so that they can prove…they were right all along.” This would be a provocative statement by itself, but Schulman amplifies its resonance by situating it at the end of a conversation about the poet’s mother, who disapproves of her published works. The line (“parents who only…”) draws additional power from its adherence to the natures of the conversating characters: Lila is brash, a writer, and rather open; the poet, Lacy, righteous and honest. Because it feels these people really would say what they say, their co-condemnation of unloving parents springs from the page. Schulman’s dialogue consistently hits this balance of naturality and congruence within a scene and, as a result, delivers complex ideas simply and forcefully.

That dialogue is the novel’s strength reinforces its central theme: community. Schulman makes clear that life as a low-income lesbian in gentrifying, 1980s New York is dangerous and difficult but, by focusing on the tightness of her circle, she demonstrates that “even when shit is hitting the fan, people can still have good times.” We see that the members of Lila’s community support each other not only because no one else will, but also because they are, simply, good friends. They share thoughts on food, love, and sex; they drink, smoke, and joke together; they wonder about life and grasp at answers. Their conversations about these things intimately communicate the importance of community for everyone, not just the subcategory of Lila’s identity, time, and place. Suffering is a feature of Girls, Visions and Everything as it is a permanent feature of human nature but, as Schulman reminds us, so is friendship. Better to share that.