BOOKS: Two line headline to go in here

WALTER WINCHELL by Neal Gabler, Picador £20

Skinned Alive is a collection of eight short stories. The first ("Pyrography") and the last ("Watermarked") are new; the rest were written between 1986 and 1992. Of these, "An Oracle" and "Palace Days" were first published in The Darker Proof: Stories From A Crisis (1987), along with four stories by Adam Mars-Jones, and "Palace Days" remains one of the best pieces of fiction about AIDS (White learnt that he was HIV positive in 1985). It possesses the virtues of one of its main characters, for whom courage is a matter of elegance, frivolity in adversity a matter of gallantry.

All these stories succeed. They are preoccupied with the intense drama of gay life in Europe and America in the second half of the 20th century. The topic has many provinces, and Edmund White's own life is a rich resource: his principal genre is autobiography through the looking glass, sometimes simply refracted, sometimes more radically transposed.

"Reprise" reaches farthest back in time, cutting to 1954 from the early 1990s when the White-like protagonist, a successful novelist living in Paris, is called up by a lover he hasn't seen since he was 14 - "the first man who took off his clothes, held me in his arms, looked me in the eye, and said `Hey"'. White falls into memory, the two men meet after nearly 40 years, and the story acquires its title.

"Pyrography" moves forward a couple of years. It seems the least remarkable story, the most styled and storified, and it puts out one too many metaphors in its account of three 16- or 17-year-old boys on a canoeing trip in the Northern Minnesotan Lake country. But it is already good, and the others are better. "Watermarked" inserts itself firmly into White's opus in its opening sentence: "I've written various versions of my youth but I've always left out my first real lover, a man I lived with for seven years and whom I met in the spring of my senior year at the University of Michigan. He's been stamped onto every page of my adult life as a watermark..." "Watermarked" spans the 1960s in New York, the years before the eruption of gay liberation in the "New York Spring" of 1969. White struggles as a playwright and attempts to be psychoanalysed out of homosexuality. His lover struggles as an actor too beautiful for comfort, too possessed by narcissism and insecurity. Here White's success is to explain his love.

Most of the remaining stories are set in Europe in the past decade - gay Americans touching middle age on holiday in Crete, summering in Venice, moving to Paris, looking for love, cruising, failing to adapt to the facts of the "plague", unable to admit the end of a way of life whose freedoms seem to constitute their personal identity. One protagonist has a quiet house on the left bank, at the back of a courtyard off the rue de Verneuil. He sleeps a lot for the sake of his immune system, listening to the rain in the courtyard, "like the sound of newspaper burning".

His best friend is dying, "the witness to his life". "The hardest thing about grief," he observes, "was just to accept that it was happening `live' and not like a commercial on a videotape that could be edited out later." Even grief gets corrupted - infected by a feeling of inauthenticity. This is one more cost imposed by the nature of HIV, its slow action and unpredictability, its ability to deliver death in conjunction with a temptation to believe that things haven't really changed. (These features of HIV have further consequences: according to a French survey, some have welcomed infection as the only way out of other problems. They have found it a source of relief, stability, and purpose, stronger friendships and renewed enthusiasm for life.)

White's stories don't finish with smart shocks (some of the endings are misjudged), or go in for calculated homiletic jolts. White is not into covert edification, or linguistic brilliance as an end in itself. There is a sense in which the short story is a violent medium, but White has a different programme. He records life as it runs, inconsequential sequences that form a whole, as lives do. His stories don't drive at something. They go "This - and this - and this", rather than "This, so this, so this, and finally this." Often they make unity out of mere concatenation. In this way they reproduce the action of reflective memory, collecting and modifying parts of a real, unrounded past under the lens of retrospective insight.

As a literary technique, mere concatenation is in fashion. It seems a quick way to an appearance of depth and resonant apposition. But White doesn't use it or exploit it; it just happens, and seems the natural form for his investigative elegies, his tolerant grief, his light, constructive malice (in the French senses of the word). He writes with a beautifully balanced, ordinary fluency, and makes an art of the humorous parenthesis. In "Watermarked", the last story, he throws light on those that precede, writing that "nothing, I suppose, is as powerful for me as the idea of actually living with someone." At the back of it all, there is a sense of an insoluble childhood sadness, with its sequelae of coldness and waspishness well concealed. But this, if true, may also be something for which White has reason to be grateful, because of the way in which it is connected to his kindness, his resilience, and his gift.

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