Novelist and literary critic Dale Peck is the author of a controversial collection of fiction reviews and four novels, including Martin and John, one of the most highly acclaimed works of AIDS literature.
Peck’s first two novels were published before he turned 30, and his prodigious talents have been praised for their “emotional wisdom” and “somber lyricism.” The influential New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani has described Peck as “a fiercely gifted modernist” and “one of the most eloquent voices of his generation.”
Dale Peck was born on July 13, 1967 on Long Island, New York, but had a peripatetic childhood, moving with his family from Long Island to upstate New York to Colorado, before finally settling in Kansas. His mother died “under mysterious circumstances,” as Peck has recalled, when he was three years old, and his father subsequently remarried three times.
Offered a scholarship, Peck attended Drew University in New Jersey, where he wrote his first novel (unpublished) as his senior honors thesis. After graduating from Drew, Peck attended the writing program at Columbia University, where he studied with the noted writers Susan Minot and Joyce Johnson.
Peck’s first published novel, Martin and John (1993), was sent out to 25 publishers before finally being accepted by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The novel is an ambitious, intricately structured series of stories about a young gay writer named John and his lover Martin who dies of AIDS.
The story of John’s life is told in brief, italicized vignettes that chart his violent Midwestern childhood, his eventual escape to New York City, his work as a hustler and sometime porn actor, his love of Martin, Martin’s death from AIDS, and John’s own probable infection.
Interleaved with these italicized vignettes are longer narratives that comment on John’s life or invert it in some
way. Either real or made up – as John explains in one narrative, “Sometimes I don’t know what I remember, what’s real and what’s been transformed with time” – these stories began as tales John told himself as a child to drown out the sounds of his parents’ fighting. Although the settings, ages, social classes, and even sexual orientations of the characters change from narrative to narrative, the ongoing themes remain the same – love, longing, violence, death, and bewilderment.
Critically lauded upon its release and commercially successful, Martin and John was hailed as one of the first “cross-over” AIDS novels, although Peck himself dismisses this notion as a “myth.” As Peck explained in an interview given some three years after the release of the novel, “Martin and John received enormously positive reviews in the mainstream press, yet as far as I can tell my readership was 90 percent white gay men, and 10 percent heterosexuals. For the most part, heterosexuals don’t buy or read books that are deemed ‘gay.'”
Peck’s interest in deconstructing traditional narrative structures continued in his next novel, The Law of Enclosures (1996), an experimental hybrid that alternates fiction and biography.
The book is organized in three sections; the first and third sections chronicle the courtship and eventual unhappy marriage of a fictitious couple, Beatrice and Henry – whose names echo the parents of John from Peck’s first novel. These sections enclose the middle segment, an angry and intensely written memoir of Peck’s own mother’s death and his adolescence spent with an alcoholic, and often abusive, father and a succession of stepmothers.