Mary Schaller’s novel Ashes of Despair is set during the burgeoning AIDS epidemic in San Francisco and concerns an illegitimate granddaughter who inherits her wealthy grandfather’s estate.
Elinor (Elly) Longacre DeMartini, a nurse, is informed about her surprising inheritance by her attorney, Arnold Smith. Smith, however, is set against her, soon hiring thug JR to kidnap, drug, and beat her. Meanwhile, Elly’s 15-year-old gay son, Davie, begins to haunt San Francisco’s “Tenderloin” looking for drugs and a “sugar dude.” He immediately meets Smith, who takes his virginity. As Elly, her police detective boyfriend, and the FBI mount a clumsy pursuit of JR, Davie quickly succumbs to AIDS.
Although the AIDS epidemic should provide rich source material, the narrative falters on many levels. Storytelling is weak (within mere days, Elly heals from her beating—one so severe that a friend doesn’t recognize her); characterization is erratic (hardened killer JR is upset by racist language when hiding out with white supremacists); internal monologues and dialogues are consistently unbelievable (during her kidnapping, Elly thinks: “This sack’s nasty odors are suffocating and debilitating”).
Additionally, Schaller’s handling of the AIDS epidemic feels inauthentic. Although AIDS is so new that nurses remind each other to use gloves in the ER, Elly immediately diagnoses her son with HIV/AIDS (the author, wrongly, uses the two terms interchangeably). Davie contracts HIV immediately and seemingly within weeks (it’s hard to tell how much time passes, as the book offers minimal dates or other time references) succumbs to full-blown AIDS. Meanwhile, Margot, a transgender woman, off-handedly refers to her gender confirmation surgery as having taken place “last week,” rather than over the course of multiple surgeries and months.
Even more problematic, there’s no attempt to examine the horror of those early days when AIDS patients were rejected by friends and family and marginalized by the media and government.
In sum, Ashes of Despair requires revision to address the abovementioned issues before readers can embrace the story.
Also available as an ebook.