Before Shelby Smoak moved away from North Carolina in 2011, he and I used to sometimes meet in Carrboro coffee shops to talk about our writing.
In addition to penning songs for his indie rock band Simple, Smoak wrote historical fiction and memoirs. I gradually learned about the Job-like series of lifelong health issues that, whether he was swimming daily or hobbling on a cane, could never seem to dull his humor and kindness. I came to suspect he was one of the most courageous people I knew. After reading his cathartic new memoir Bleeder—a book we used to chat about, now published by Michigan State University Press—I'm certain of it.
Bleeder begins in 1990 with Smoak, "a tender slip of bone" on the cusp of his freshman year at UNC-Wilmington, being stunned by an HIV diagnosis. A hemophiliac, he had received an infected transfusion as a child. Mainly covering his jolted college years, the book is a harrowing litany of treatments and procedures, scary lapses and partial recoveries. Beyond the physical and financial burdens of HIV, Smoak faces the climate of fear and secrecy surrounding it in the '90s, putting relationships on the line with each revelation. Remarkably, with sheer perseverance—and the help of some good doctors, friends and family—he wrings a normal life from it all. Despite exceptional adversity, Bleeder is a heroically conventional coming-of-age story about one young man's search for an adult identity, which of course includes the search for love.
How HIV affects intimate relationships is a big part of the book. After Smoak's diagnosis, we pine and worry with him through bittersweet reconnections and precarious new liaisons. The descriptions of sexual encounters, discreet yet raw, are charged with emotional and moral necessity. Nowhere else is the conflict between the lightness of youth and the heaviness of infirmity more keenly felt.
"I've already told my mom I want to send her a sealed and framed copy," Smoak joked to me in a recent conversation by phone from his home in Washington, D.C. He was cheerful despite recently learning that he has cirrhosis resulting from Hepatitis C—yes, that too. "It's the only thing I've ever written that she hasn't read. In early drafts I was less honest and did more of the Victorian allusion thing, but I had to stop thinking about who would read it."
The story is lean and focused, swinging tautly from one set piece to another as calendar pages briskly peel away. The present-tense narration roots us in events as they unfold, urgent and cumulative. "The book was set in the past tense at first," Smoak explained. "The idea of the force of the present tense probably came from reading Angela's Ashes, how it made the narrative come alive."
That wasn't the only major shift that galvanized the book over a long decade. Smoak started Bleeder in 2000, and for a few years, things looked very promising. He secured an agent and an acceptance letter from Simon & Schuster. "I told everybody," he said ruefully. "But then my agent had a personal crisis and got out of the business, and the editor at Simon & Schuster changed departments. It took me a little while to accept that it was not happening, and it was a little embarrassing. I took some time off."
But soon, Smoak returned to the book, thinning out narrative strands and compositing many characters into an accessible handful of doctors and friends. Though Hepatitis C is a major factor in his life, you won't read about it in Bleeder, and the only inkling we get of Smoak's music is when he splurges on an electric guitar.
"I had tons of scenes of going on tour and having hemophilia troubles," he said. "When I came out about my HIV, the songwriter of my first band started writing all these really heartfelt HIV songs. Those stories remain to be told." This winnowing down allowed literary motifs to emerge, especially the ocean, a vessel of acceptance and healing always waiting at the edge of North Carolina.
Now Smoak is an adjunct professor at Northern Virginia Community College, teaching comp and lit courses, working on a novel. His legs have been good lately, and he hikes the Potomac Trail for miles on the weekends. The mountains have come to succor him just like the sea used to. As he pondered the beginning of a new, rigorous cirrhosis treatment schedule, I asked him about Bleeder's epigraph from poet Louise Glück: "At the end of my suffering / there was a door."
"I feel like I walked through it in the last chapter of the book," he explained. "There's still this cloud of Hep C, but treatments seem very positive and hopeful. They might create their own problems, but the thing you don't have with Hep C is the stigma [of HIV]. The open door was not just my recovery, but also the social awareness changing around HIV. Open has really turned out to be the key word."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Heavy bleeder."