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Buenas Noches Buenos Aires by Gilbert Adair

Journal of the plague years

Gideon, the young gay protagonist of Gilbert Adair's new novel, comes out in what Edmund White has described as the halcyon period of unabashed hedonism between the repression of the Fifties and Sixties and the ravages of the Eighties and Nineties. It is an era when, despite crabs, rashes, inflammations, hives and hepatitis, an appointment at the STD clinic holds no more terror than a trip to the dentist.

Gideon is determined to enjoy all the fruits of liberation, first in London, where a job at Foyles enables him to experience the tawdry pleasures of the city's newly emergent gay scene, and then in Paris, where he lands a post in the Berlitz language school, whose English department is predominantly staffed by gay men. Chatting with his four colleagues (the would-be novelist George; the hypochondriac and masochist Fereydoun; the sexual predator Mick; and the unattainably gorgeous Ralph), he discovers the camaraderie he has lacked. He listens rapt as they recount their sexual adventures and, too ashamed to admit to his own ineptitude, invents stories to gain their respect.

Then, shortly after the first intimation of a "gay cancer" in America (which Mick dismisses as no more probable than gay gallstones), the horror of Aids hits the group. While his friends attempt to deal with their diagnoses - and the disease which, in those days, followed swiftly - Gideon, who realises that his fantasies have been the safest form of sex, is left regretting his isolation and prepared to take extreme risks for the sake of solidarity.

Gideon's death wish sounds the only original note in an otherwise predictable novel. Adair adds little to the graphic accounts to be found in works such as Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library and Renaud Camus's Tricks. Edmund White himself has famously chronicled the transition from nightclubs to night sweats, and orgies to funerals.

The banality of the plot might be less serious if either the characterisation or prose showed more distinction. Gideon, however, is less a character than a neurosis with erudition. Adair's usual linguistic precision deserts him as he indulges in a succession of clumsy images, such as the man with a penis so large that "when it was fully erect, I could barely move around his tiny room".

In his opening paragraph, Gideon declares that "Everything you read in the next 150 pages is true. Absolutely everything and absolutely true. This is a true story." The over-emphasis strikes a warning note to those familiar with the games-playing in Adair's earlier, more successful novels. Nevertheless, artistic - not biographical - truth is the determinant of successful fiction. On that count, Buenas Noches Buenos Aires sadly fails.

Michael Arditti's stories, 'Good Clean Fun', are due from Maia Press in May

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