Open Book. B&W. ©Alina Oswald.

Book Review: The Journalist of Castro Street

The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts
by Andrew E. Stoner
University of Illinois Press

Reviewed by Alina Oswald [a #tbt review originally published in A&U Magazine in August 2019]

The moment I noticed Andrew E. Stoner’s new book, The Journalist of Castro Street, I just knew that it had to be about The Life of Randy Shilts. I believe I’ve been waiting and wishing for this book for many years, ever since I first read And the Band Played On, and then, shortly after that, The Mayor of Castro Street and Conduct Unbecoming. Then, just last August, upon reviewing Patient Zero: The Making of the AIDS Epidemic for A&U, I wondered yet again about a book that would tell not only Shilts’ side of the story related to “Patient Zero” but, more importantly, about a book that would tell Shilts’ full story.

The Journalist of Castro Street does that and much more. The first-ever biography of the acclaimed investigative journalist and author captures a complex portrait of Randy Shilts, offering a rare behind-the-scenes glance into his short, yet blazing trajectory through life and (early AIDS and LGBTQ+) journalism.

The story of the journalist of Castro Street doesn’t start on Castro Street nor in San Francisco, but rather in Shilts’ hometown of Aurora, Illinois, a place likened to an “archetypal backdrop for a popular comedy sketch that attempted to portray the realities of idealized American life in the postwar era.” As he travels to Oregon, and then settles in San Francisco, we get to discover Shilts, as if in real time, as he discovers himself, one page at a time. In the process, we get to learn about the man behind the brash, pioneer journalist and author, about his relentless work ethic, his struggles with substance abuse and alcohol, his take on “Patient Zero,” his relationship with his critics from the straight and in particular the gay community, as well as his own HIV status.

NYC AIDS Memorial. Shadows. Photo by Alina Oswald.
NYC AIDS Memorial. Shadows. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Maybe most importantly, for those of us wondering, we get to learn about the stories behind his books. In that sense, The Journalist of Castro Street becomes not only a biography of Randy Shilts’ life but also a biography of the making of his books…or, perhaps, it tells Randy Shilts’ life story through the stories behind his books.

Truth is that, to this day, it’s impossible to talk about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic without mentioning Randy Shilts, in particular, And the Band Played On. And while sometimes it might seem easy to only associate Shilts’ work with his documenting the beginning of the epidemic, let’s not forget his reporting, also, on the early fight for equal rights and related activism. The Journalist of Castro Street, which debuts fifty years after the Stonewall Riots, reminds us of all Shilts’ work, and helps us better understand it as well as the journalist, himself.

What’s fascinating about The Journalist of Castro Street is that it doesn’t attempt to capture an idyllic picture of Randy Shilts, but rather a real, raw (and roughed) portrait of the journalist. While Shilts, the man, is far from perfect; Shilts, the journalist, is tenacious and relentless when it comes to his work, chasing and telling the story.

Toward the end of his life, he realized that “he wouldn’t get to write or even read the last chapter of his life.” In a statement about his own life, Shilts once mentioned that he was “left with the strange feeling that your life is somehow finished without being completed.”

Stoner writes, “If he were alive today…he likely would have remained in the forefront, hammering away for the progress on issues that could bring homosexuals into the fullness of liberty in American life.”

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