At first, I was not sure Jennifer Anne Moses had the right to write this book! She comes, as far as we know, from neither the drug addict side of "living the life," nor the disease side of AIDS. So as I tried to suspend my disbelief, I was compelled to call the author for this review.
"Well I spent ten years in Baton Rouge as a volunteer with the AIDS patients," she said. Fair enough.
In Visiting Hours, Moses channels the soul of a black woman, old and wisened. The nurses and AIDS hospice workers, mostly black and loving Jesus as their savior, have both empathy for the characters and anger over their plight. Some of the telling is from the first person account of life leading up to AIDS and waiting for death once contracted or "getting sick."
I have always admired this writer, most known for her deep, human and powerful short stories. The 250-page collection of short stories in this book (Fomite, Burlington, Vermont) forms a cohesive totality. Characters are richly developed in each chapter. The sequences are dream-like as Moses explores the internal dialogue which precedes or accompanies death. I felt moved by the exploration of what we believe before we die. There is a cacophony of sound and even hallucinogenic moments before death. And then, nothing.
In lurid detail, whether from hooking on the streets, or shooting-up and sharing needles, or anal intercourse, these characters prove they are more than their disease. Wasted potential, lost dreams, and yet somehow the human spirit come shining through. Moses' artful expressions, dialogue and character development are richly honed. We experience Schadenfreude but these lives are more than watching a train wreck unfold.
So bottom line, people die in Visiting Hours, most often alone or perhaps with either a care-giver or priest at their side. The Spiritual South and absolute faith that Jesus will take these lost souls home is the string that holds everyone and the narrative itself together. In every scene or chapter, there is a catharsis for the character as each one tries to work-out his or her salvation.
There is an evangelism to what the protagonist Suzette goes through in her own transformation. She is the volunteer, the transport who takes AIDS patients out for their necessities. Suzette may be Moses herself though the book liner tells us these characters are all part of the author's imagination. At a climactic moment, the AIDS patients actually rally around the woman forming a protective barrier. She thinks as they do and experiences the melt-down of AIDS patients in organ failure:
"Her hands are clammy and her heart is racing and the voices inside her head have turned into a roar... but she cannot get it out. How could she without melting out of her present form, out of her skin, and through her Gap corduroy skirt and pink cotton sweater and becoming no more than emptiness and void, primordial chaos, motion without form?"
Moses speaks the unspeakable with sacrilege, with honesty, and helps us all face our own mortality. One is not morbidly curious but the reader's expectation runs high and we await this death with sort of a vigil or sitting Shiva upon the moment of passing. Yet there is also humor as when the priest, Father Ralph has to offer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction with Vaseline because his own chrism oil has run dry.
This double entendre metaphor struck me from the sexual connotation of petroleum jelly to the priest's own impotence.
As a disclaimer, Jennifer Anne Moses is known to me. I would read her in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine and hope every month or two there may be an installment from our friend from Washington then a transplant to Baton Rouge. Except for years I did not realize she was the self-same Jennifer Moses I had known at Langley High School 35 years ago in advanced English or composition courses. I was just a huge fan of someone named Moses who could really spin a yarn.
The author is also an artist whose works have appeared in galleries from South to North. Moses provides the African American nuanced cover art for the book: www.jenniferannemosesarts.com