Family fortunes

The newest gay fiction is full of surprises. Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99
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That long exhausted literary genre, the family saga, has received a new lease of life and from an unexpected source. First there was Patrick Gale's The Facts of Life; now the American gay writer Michael Cunningham has published Flesh and Blood, a conventional account of inter-generational conflict, albeit spiced with an unconventional sexuality that is far removed from Galsworthy or even Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Constantine Stassos, Cunningham's patriarch, is first seen at the age of eight, literally eating his native Greek soil, which he is stealing to make a garden. Although his love of gardens becomes a recurring motif, he never again enjoys so authentic a relationship with the land after he emigrates to America and makes a fortune jerrybuilding. His home life rests on equally flimsy foundations. He marries Mary, a beautiful Italian girl, who yearns to be as American as apple pie but remains as much of a hybrid as a Chicago deep pan pizza. She expresses her sense of alienation in shoplifting. Constantine buries his deeper, but it emerges in a violent relationship with his son Billy, and in an abusive one with his daughter, Susan.

The novel chronicles the Stassoses' story from the late Fifties to the mid Nineties in a series of short chapters, each with a different presiding consciousness, which resemble snapshots taken by various family members in turn. He takes us from New Jersey to New York and New England as Constantine's marriage founders, and Susan gives birth to a son who may or may not be her husband's. Billy comes out, pumps iron and renames himself Will, and his younger sister Zoe discovers life on the streets of the East Village, under the tutelage of the drag queen Cassandra, who proves a fatally inadequate prophetess of the doom that lies in store.

Cunningham brilliantly conveys the changing dynamic of family life, conflicting loyalties and compromised loves. His limpid prose captures delicate and complex states of mind, ranging from a woman's indulgence in commonplace adultery, through a gay man's acceptance of an undistingushed love, to a child's oblique perspective on the world. And yet the book is utterly unchallenging. In subject, scope and form, it calls to mind American TV drama: just as its chapters feel fashioned to fit commercial breaks, so its emotions seem to have been sanitised in order not to offend sponsors. Complexity is constantly avoided; a typical chapter will turn on a crisis - Mary's shoplifting, Billy's walking out of his graduation - and then the next will open a year or so later without anything being confronted, let alone resolved. This may be intended as a family characteristic but it seems more like a lack of authorial nerve.

It is only in the final chapters, particularly with the onslaught of Aids, but also with the self-hating homophobia of Susan's son Ben, that Cunningham allows both darkness and depth into the novel. Before that, for all the hints of passion, rage and family ties more like tentacles, it reads as if the author has decided not to let any messy emotions intrude on his characters' lives or interfere with his own polished prose. When 12-year-old Jamal masturbates by his dying mother's bed, there is, for all the horror of the image, a sense of relief that, at last, something dangerous has burst onto the page.

Flesh and Blood is a highly enjoyable and eminently readable novel. And yet one feels that the measured elegance of the writing has squeezed out some of its life.