Book review / No pecs, no sex but plenty of wrecks

The Beauty of Men by Andrew Holleran, Picador, pounds 15.99 by Margaret Wertheim, Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99
In recent years, those who consider HIV a harmless retrovirus have proposed many alternative causes for Aids. One is that it is a choice: gay men, whose culture is based on the desirability of youth, are so terrified by ageing that they opt instead for a glamorous death - Violetta, or Maria Callas, coughing on a couch rather than Aschenbach, or Dirk Bogarde, collapsing on the Lido.

Such a theory may seem far-fetched, but after reading Andrew Holleran's deeply depressing new novel, one begins to see its attractions. His central figure, Lark (the ultimate misnomer), has moved to Florida, both to be close to his paralysed mother and to escape a Manhattan where gay life has become an epitaph. His world is dominated by different kinds of ageing: his sick friends; his mother's companions in the nursing home, and his own decreasing sexual potency.

Lark is a problematic protagonist. His intelligence is clear yet he seems to have no inner life. He has no friends, no job, no activities besides visiting his mother and obsessing about sex. (He is a voyeur with a penchant for cyclists and runners.)

Holleran does not create sympathy for his hero so much as guilt - it is hard to quarrel with someone who has fled from a world where, in Paul Rudnick's phrase, "Aids is your filofax". And yet his friends' suffering only makes his preoccupation with his lost looks more trivial. It comes as a shock to work out that he is 48, a venerable age to a medieval peasant but less so in the era of Joan Collins.

The sole exception to this "no pecs, no sex" saga is Becker, a man with whom Lark has a one-night stand and a year-long obsession. Becker is the perfect fantasy-figure for a self- hating gay man - a rugged construction worker with a daughter. Lark is doomed to failure with him. But so is the author: allow Becker to respond to Lark and he risks reducing the novel to wish-fulfilment; keep them apart and he deprives it of plot. Lark's only escape from his sexual morass comes in visits to his mother's nursing home - episodes that contain the novel's most powerful writing. The irony of Lark's dependence on his mother and the description of her death are superbly realised.

The Beauty of Men is a novel of incidental insights but abiding disappointment. Depression hangs heavier than the clammy Florida air. The emphasis on corrupted flesh is so insistent that, at times, the book descends into grand guignol.

In The Burning Library, Edmund White laments that "some of our best imaginative writers like Larry Kramer and Andrew Holleran have turned away from fiction to essays as though only direct address is adequate to the crisis". Like White, Holleran has emphasised the importance of autobiography in his fiction as a means of validating gay experience. His first novel, Dancer From the Dance, has claims to be the novel of metropolitan gay life, capturing the excitement and excess in lush cadences. But such exuberance no longer seems appropriate. Instead, he writes with a cold precision that makes Lark's life even less engaging. The enormity of the crisis appears to have overwhelmed him and prevented his finding a fictional correlative for his pain.