A clever and almost consistently amusing debut, part Nabokov and part John Irving, about the writing of ``a self-referent novel about life and death.'' The life is that of Darren Swenson, a native midwesterner who grows up gay and disillusioned with his corn-fed all-American ancestry and milieu (Immaculatum, Kansas), strikes out for Manhattan and brief fulfillment working as a call boy (for ``Star Studs''), and makes his way to the City of Light, where, HIV- positive and ebullient to the last, he plans to spend his remaining days surrounded by sympathetic lovers and friends. The story of that life is presented to us as it is written, reconstructed, and imagined by the narrator, an American-born Frenchman named Philippe Tapon (hence both author and character), who, like everyone else outside of Kansas, falls victim to Darren's considerable charm and agrees to write a novel based on the dying American's life. Philippe's version includes his own stops and starts and second thoughts as he's getting material about his subject, many deliberate misdirections (such as scenes we assume really occurred, until the narrator confesses he has invented them), distorted chronology and alternative versions of episodes and conversations and fantasy sequences (for example, a phone call Philippe imagines receiving from Darren after he imagines Darren has died). There are even appearances by editor-publisher ``Billy'' Abrahams and by an urbane gay novelist (Edward Gray) who's obviously a stand-in for Edmund White. It all sounds suffocatingly coy, but it's actually quite lively--even if Darren's unquenchable joie de vivre makes him sound a bit like a rustic Auntie Mame. Tapon even gets good mileage out of a tissue of allusions to and steals from ``Philippe's'' favorite literary works (The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and ``The Wasteland,'' among others). An assured and entertaining debut that will make readers curious to see what its talented author will turn his hand to next.