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'The Gravest Show on Earth; America in the age of Aids'
Elinor Burkett
Houghton Mifflin Co. USA 1995, 400 pages,
ISBN 0-395-74537-3.

Not since And the Band Played On has any journalist taken readers behind the scenes in the war against Aids to reveal how avarice, ignorance, and egotism are subverting the nation's struggle against the epidemic. But Elinor Burkett goes well beyond Randy Shilts. She not only reports on the decade of plague he did not cover, but addresses the wider questions about what Aids reveals about America on the brink of the new millennium.

Readers meet the major players - from activist/ playwright Larry Kramer to scientist Robert Gallo and MTV star Pedro Zamora - and watch them in action at home, in their laboratories, and at demonstrations. We see Jonas Salk manipulating his company's stock prices by carefully parcelling out research information, Henry Heimlich peddling malaria as the magic bullet that will kill HIV, and federally funded scientists making "advertorials" for the drug companies whose products they test. We are taken into the streets at political funerals and behind the scenes of negotiations at which leaders of the Aids service industry divide up government funding for the dying. We read detailed accounts of the tensions that Aids has caused in the African American community and of the fight staged by women to end the nation's decades-long policy of approving drugs tested only on men.

In this hard-hitting work of investigative journalism, Burkett takes no sides, She trains the same critical eye on scientists and activists, on Jesse Helms and gay America. She offers an alarming view of public health officials squeezed between the conflicting jihads of gay men and conservative Republicans. Wether Burkett is writing about the skewing of research data or bureaucratic ineptitude, her prose is lively, her characters are vibrant, and the controversies are vivid. The Gravest Show on Earth is certain to become a landmark volume of social history.

Elinor Burkett has a doctorate in history and was a university professor for thirteen years before switching to journalism. She garnered numerous national and state awards for her work with the Miami Herald, which nominated her reporting on AIDS for a 1991 Pulitzer Prize. She lives in upstate New York.

  • Here you can find a book review.
  • An article on HIV written by Burkett can be found here.
  • Another one about antiviral drug research here.
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