One of the keys to its success is that it runs on a continuum from effervescence to feverishness (which threatens to escalate to the spontaneous combustion of the title). Another is that it draws on a magnificent tradition of irrepressible irony, camp parody
and neurosis. The narrator, B J Rosenthal, is gay, Jewish, and lives in New York. There's a cloud of static around him even before the crisis, constantly discharging as wit.
Or what might pass as wit before it is written down. The novel opens with B J on a night out with a friend in 1985, all fluttering and flirting and talking in italics. The evening dies a death when their waiter tells them he is leaving to go on to medical disability benefit, which can only mean one thing. The old style of banter is now exposed as inadequate, but they have not yet learnt to talk about AIDS, so they fall silent.
BJ switches from an imitation of wit to the real McCoy when anxiety is joined by anger and urgency. He hits his stride when he describes how he decided to take the Test; after reading 17 articles by well-meaning liberal heterosexual columnists who were worried enough to take the test, their fears being entirely reasonable in the event that their mothers were actually Haitian, or some similar contingency, but not otherwise.
BJ's result comes in positive, as he knew it would. Now he has to cope with the knowledge, while also coping with the deaths of friends which may be showing him his own future. Life as it was previously known goes on; job, telephone conversations, movies, therapy, relationships. But the old criteria have been discarded. It doesn't matter whether the men will be desirable or the food good or the conversation or the decor smart. The only question is, will it be good for the T-cells?
At ACT UP meetings, B J can feel the T-cells falling as the activists' decibels rise, but the slogan 'Action = Life' overrides the immediate welfare of his lymphocytes. He goes to the barricades on demos; he is carried off to jail, where fellow prisoners take turns to play Susan Hayward on Death Row. And arrest is the easy bit: he has to tell his mother, too. Armed with AZT, aerosol pentamidine, the ability to recognise a placebo when he sees one, even if it is billed as 'self-empowering', and Gloria Gaynor, this authentic contemporary hero faces the future. The epilogue is a droll fantasy about the advent of the cure. At this point, the voice wavers once again. Its very hollowness is eloquent.Reuse content