White leaves the first-person, autobiographical world of his trilogy (The Farewell Symphony, 1997, etc.) and portrays a romance—and its dissolution—across three continents and six countries with his characteristic wisdom and sexual frankness, darkened by a new sense of foreboding.
Fifty-ish, HIV-positive, and recently heartbroken Austin Smith is an American scholar living in Paris, where he writes primarily about furniture. In his gym, he meets Julien, a married French architect some 20 years his junior. With effortless narrative velocity, a romance ensues, and so does the novel’s travelogue, first with short excursions around the Paris area, then outward to detailed passages in Nice, Venice, Rome, Vermont, Montreal, Disney World, Key West, the Yucatan peninsula, and finally Morocco. In the early Paris sections, Austin’s relationship with Julien develops against a background of elegant salons, privileged expatriates, and an assimilated gay subculture, with White sharply and drolly observing social manners—as well as the ethical issue of when to tell a lover about a dread disease. Midway through the story, Austin accepts a teaching position at a university in Providence, Rhode Island; Julien divorces, leaves his firm, and follows. In something of a reversal, the Providence sections introduce complications the initial set-up didn’t anticipate: Austin discovers the malignant, politically correct demagoguery of academia—but it’s Julien who develops the much more serious problem of full-blown AIDS. Austin compromises principles, grows if not robust than rotund, while the once apparently healthy Julien goes into a sad and rapid decline. At heart here are issues of loyalty and the suspension of the erotic in the face of a terminal disease. The music of tragedy swells to operatic proportions in Morocco, where Julien’s lingering death invokes elements of the divine, the clinical, and the macabre. Here, the graphic sex of White’s earlier work is replaced with graphic medicalia, and its thematic urgency by a poignant, bone-weary resignation to the now sadly predictable injustices of life and death in the gay community.
A wise, sorrowful tale.