A friend of a friend

AMERICAN STUDIES by Mark Merlis, Fourth Estate pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
PERHAPS no one should publish a first novel before his early forties. The possible benefits of such self-denial can be seen in Mark Merlis's confident, compassionately imagined American Studies: calm; peace; sustained wit; propulsive use of camp; control of the material; warmth untouched by cosiness; understanding of what it would not help to say. This is an American gay novel that avoids the manner of any such thing.

It is almost inevitable that, in this country at any rate, Merlis will be compared with Alan Hollinghurst. Leaving aside the subject matter, both writers talk to us as though we, too, possess their mandarin mental address. Neither explains too much. Both are susceptible to beauty but alert to the stylistic problems of expressing it. They are lucid aesthetes hot on laconic wit, with unforced access to the past of the language they use. Each is an adept of the self-distancing narrator, standing aside from himself on account of his ironising intelligence and imperfect love of self. However, all these comparisons are reductive, though they may have a limited usefulness as a sort of shorthand to potential readers - an introduction to the friend of a friend.

In the purlieus of the gay novel, such introductions have a place, for fear the reader might otherwise find himself stuck in a domestic nook with David Leavitt or buried far from the bracing uplands of Vidal in the damp Englishness of Maurice, in its way far superior to much of the coy slush whose want of style used to be forgiven on account of content, as though that were of itself helpful to homosexuals finding their condition nowhere in literature but its basements and suburbs.

American Studies is the story of a political martyrdom, though the politics are not overtly sexual. Tom Slater is a distinguished academic, the Master of his conventional Eastern college, author of The Invincible City, a work of literary criticism influential in its time, unreadable now. Reeve, a happy tart unable to attune himself to Tom's frozen guilt and noble naivete, was once Tom's pupil and his love, though not his lover.

In the hospital bed where, 40 years later, Reeve lies after too rough a piece of trade, he recalls Tom Slater's life, his Communism, his romantic- classical passion for young men, his disgrace and betrayal, at the time of McCarthy, and his suicide by a gun in the mouth.

The worldly, modern voice of Reeve, still electrified by lust for the straight lunk (sic) in the adjoining bed (who is laid up with a bad thumb reminiscent of little Lord Tangent's foot in Decline and Fall), acts as a foil to the Roman virtues of Tom Slater. Tom is a hero built on self- denial, self-deception, repression, good behaviour and intellectual discipline, an old-fashioned hero seen entire, as he would hate to be seen or "understood", but, in Merlis's skilful hands, to his eventual honour. Although Slater is the tragic centre of the book, his drama sheds light on the changing scene for gay men in America through the middle of the century.

There are pungent set pieces delivered with a sure comic touch, as when prissy Fuzzy Walgreen, "the Pindar man", describes repeated acts of homoerotic love to the odious "dynamic Martin van Leunen; the adjective so inevitable it might have been his real name". The "maidenly bosom" of Reeve's friend Howard is tight in its thin jumper as he melts Reeve's expensive bifocals with the Bic lighter of the sexy boy in the next bed, to make a lorgnon for the narrator's undamaged eye. The Cyclopean echo underscores a kind of Homeric truthfulness in this novel's depiction of mortal struggle. As Reeve says, in another context: "in Homer the battle recedes from view and you are left with two men acting out their moira in the dust."