BOOK REVIEW / Lust abuse in New York: 'The Sound of Heaven' - Joseph Olshan: Bloomsbury, 14.99 pounds

FOR NEW YORK authors who hinge their stories on middle-class crises - drugs at well-heeled New England schools, bulimia, depression - Aids may ironically prove the ideal novelistic device. Its mysterious, indiscriminate power offers the perfect lead-in to meditations on sex, death and religion, those perpetually fascinating topics, especially when combined.

The Sound of Heaven doesn't linger at uptown lunches or shops like Balducci's, nor does it extol the city's weirdness or yuppie anomie - one is particularly grateful for what such a book is not. Importantly, it isn't morbid, and does a good line in lust - the questionable basis for James Gregory and Diana Bloom's relationship.

Both blurb and title are misleadingly purple; Olshan straightforwardly charts the beginning of love in Italy, then its crash-landing back home when it becomes clear that James's bisexuality is more than just a stock 'issue'. The story's momentum is achieved by flashbacks, which also explain the family background. Diana's is well-to-do Jewish, with a Zionist mother unwilling to equate the monumental tragedy of her own generation with that of her daughter's; James's is Irish Catholic, with a drunken father, Willie, whose beatings invariably end in sexual abuse. The 'sound of heaven' is the running water before Willie contritely bathes him.

The drawback is a cross-referencing where the reader is obliged to learn what everyone thinks of everyone else. But the characters don't stray from their naturalistic brief while performing the author's work for him. Kathleen, James's cousin and seducer, blames Willie for James's sexuality and disease - true or not, it is right this possibility is explored; thus, without authorial judgement, every aspect of Aids morality is examined.

Such politically-correct scrupulousness might seem indigestible were it not for the characterisations: Stella's 'teased, dyed-ageless hair framing her face like the hood of a cobra', or Diana's father distancing himself through routine after his son's overdose, retiring to Florida and finally rising to Diana's 'concern'. 'Did you ever consider I have other things that I think about . . . You start to get old and then see if you don't get depressed.' The poetry ('the stony pleats of Grace Church' or 'her voice . . . lacquered with sleep') is restrained in the sex scenes, where the matter-of-factness serves rather to heighten the eroticism. (There's one lapse: orgasm described as a 'point of light'. Is this purple, or evasive?)

There is not much humour, even in a sadly convincing argument over a dildo representing the absent Brian; one wonders that neither sees the funny side. Still, unlike James's mother, who is apt to bake the roast dry, Olshan doesn't overdo things.

Diana's regret for the 'scary love that can't be left alone' is convincing, as is her disappointment that her current relationship - that word again] - is 'too easy'. This rings true, as do the descriptions of escalating violence matching escalating passion: the need to relive pain, to reinvent it, amplify it, in order to feel anything at all.

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