Picks and Pans Review: And the Band Played on

updated 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Randy Shilts

This 600-page history of the AIDS epidemic in America has generated a controversy that continues to buzz: Has Shilts overstated the case, or has a breakdown of our social system contributed to the disease's rapid spread? Shilts, 36, an openly gay reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, interviewed 900 people in an effort to find out what has been done, or not done, to combat acquired immune deficiency syndrome since it was first identified as a unique disease in 1981. The subtitle of the resulting book might well be "Shame! Shame! Shame!"—the chant gay activists have used in protests designed to generate greater AIDS research funding. "On the day President Reagan delivered his first speech about the epidemic, more than 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease; over 21,000 had died," writes the author. Shilts fills page after page with disturbing examples of how not only the government but blood banks, the press and the gay community unwittingly helped the disease flourish by failing to confront its significance. Shilts also documents how political maneuvering in the scientific community has hampered research. The massive book, which has few heroes, is neatly divided into short recurring sections, with activities chronicled over time at such places as the Centers for Disease Control, the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the Pasteur Institute and Castro Street, the heart of San Francisco's gay community. The institutions implicitly indicted by the book have, not surprisingly, accused Shilts of misrepresenting events. Even viewed more as an argument than as history, however, the book, full of drama, menace and conflict, reads like something out of Stephen King. And Shilts with ominous persuasiveness makes a case that ours is a system capable of failing abjectly when faced with a factual menace of still uncertain proportions. (St. Martin's, $24.95)

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