Review: Novel revisits culture wars, AIDS crisis

“The Spectators” (Random House), by Jennifer duBois

A deadly school shooting serves as a pivotal event in “The Spectators,” a novel that revisits American cultural wars and crises in the last decades of the 20th century.

Mostly set in New York City, the novel looks at this period through the experiences of two wholly different characters: a gay man, Semi, who is a playwright grappling angrily and poignantly with the AIDS crisis; and an unhappy young woman, Cel, a publicist for a wildly successful and hated television talk show featuring increasingly bizarre guests.

Told in alternating sections about Semi and Cel that move back and forth in time, the meandering narrative revolves around a central figure, Matthew Miller. He’s a calm but crusading lawyer and politico who makes a run for mayor of New York City before switching careers and hosting “The Mattie M Show.”

His show’s freakish subjects, such as devil worship and incest, ignite on-set threats and violence that may or may not be real. But fake or not, the show draws huge ratings and voluble scorn — even a claim that “Mattie M,” through its riveting media mayhem, is responsible for the two teenage students who opened fire in a high school classroom.

As one of the shooters explains: “I didn’t know it was real.”

“The Spectators,” the third novel by the well-regarded author Jennifer duBois, often thrums with vibrancy and echoes divisive current events as it covers a timeline from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. It also gains momentum when the plot takes a sudden, sinister twist —a threat of blackmail, a shooter’s potentially explosive letter, a secret taping. But it can turn tedious when the prose is overly embellished or a scene goes on too long.

Through Semi, the novel looks back at the gay sexual revolution and the anguish of AIDS in the 1980s. Semi says one of his plays was a “modestly elegiac retrospective of what had happened.” In sections of “The Spectators,” however, his words are a searingly felt remembrance.

For Cel, the distress in part is over the ugly faux media environment she wants to flee.

Cel and Semi don’t know each other and move mostly in different circles, but Matthew Miller, aka Mattie M, is connected to both — he was Semi’s secret lover — and is the key unlocking the narrative as their stories converge.