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A deft mixture of contrasting tones distinguishes this vigorous novel about the New York art scene ``Before'' and ``After'' the Age of AIDS, by the gifted author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989) and White People (stories: 1991). Narrator Hartley Mims, a writer who migrated in 1980, when he was in his early 30s, from Falls, North Carolina, to Manhattan, begins his story with a Prologue set 14 years later, on the occasion of the horrifying, lingering death of his friend and soulmate Robert Gustafson, long renowned as ``the prettiest boy in New York,'' though only minimally acclaimed as the composer of an ambitious musical work whose theme is the launching and sinking of the Titanic. That image, along with several equally telling monitory metaphors (a street mugging that causes scarring and temporary blindness, friends first meeting at a VD clinic, Mahler's ``Songs for Dead Children''), casts an ominous shadow over vividly evoked scenes of erotic play, artistic (and artful) posturing and clowning, and the up-and-down friendships that bond Hartley forever with his beloved (bisexual) Robert, their best gal-pal, heterosexual Angelina ``Alabama'' Byrnes (a Jackson Pollocklike painter with a splash or two of real genius), and several other intimates who, like Hartley, exercise their gayness in a feverish atmosphere that only gradually reveals its lethal malignity. The writing is pure pleasure throughout: alert, witty, and studded with virtuoso phrasemaking. Yet one must object that by sentimentalizing his characters as doomed ``children'' (a theme adumbrated by the witty title), Gurganus risks robbing them of their dignity as responsible adults. The point, of course, is that they're both. Gurganus may not, therefore, be the spokesman for his generation that Plays Well seems to claim, but he's unquestionably one of its most provocative and interesting stylists. (First printing of 100,000)*justify no*

Pub Date: Nov. 3rd, 1997
ISBN: 0-394-58914-9
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1997


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