Watching Wally die: Books

Michael Arditti is moved by a study of love and loss
Heaven's Coast by Mark Doty, Cape, pounds 16.99

Contrary to popular belief, it is not only Jack and Jill who dream of a gentle retirement as Derby and Joan. Jack and Bill share this vision. The difference is that premature senility rather than benign old age is the fate of many gay men in the age of Aids.

The particular Jack and Bill in question are Mark Doty and Wally Roberts. In 1989, eight years into their relationship, they take an HIV test. Wally's comes back positive; Mark's negative. But so close is their bond that, as Doty movingly writes, "I remember thinking it didn't matter which of us it was, that his news was mine."

The date of the diagnosis is as marked in their lives as a shift from BC to AD. All at once, an all too familiar story is played out as Wally's health starts to fail. This is the stuff of many contemporary memoirs, but the difference here is that Doty is the award-winning poet of My Alexandria and Atlantis, and Heaven's Coast is as much a book of metaphor as of medical fact.

Doty quotes Monet's admission that, as his wife Camille lay on her deathbed, he found himself "without being able to help it, in a study of my beloved wife's face, systematically noting the colours." He himself is impelled by a similar instinct to describe the processes of Wally's decline. His love for his partner radiates so strongly from the prose that, even when he is dealing with the most graphic details of incontinence, the effect is poignant rather than sordid.

As in his poetry, Doty is able to invest the most mundane moment with a wealth of meaning. He intersperses his account of the four years between Wally's diagnosis and death with memories of an earlier, happier life. He returns to the apartment block in Boston where they lodged; although that too becomes tinged with sadness as, like the rooming-house in Tennessee Williams's Vieux Carre, it fills with ghosts: Bobby, his lover's ex-lover; Doug, his lover's brother's lover; David, his lover's ex-lover's lover. The litany of deaths reveals the fragile interlacing of their lives.

Unlike Wally who is spared the indignity of opportunistic infections and hospital admissions and allowed to die at home, other of Doty's friends are thrown onto the mercy of doctors. He visits one in a state hospital Aids ward which has "a quality in the air that bus terminals have". From there, it is but a short step to the memorial service with its peculiarly American blend of the grandiloquent and the grotesque. But, in case he should assume that AIDS has a monopoly on his friends' deaths, further intimations of mortality occur as two of his closest women friends die in separate car accidents.

The most vivid passages of the book are those which deal with Wally's death. Although every physical lapse is recorded, Doty does not dwell on the flesh but rather strips it away to reach to a deeper truth. He repeatedly stresses the paradox that Wally's bodily decline only serves to make him more himself. His face becomes "pure self" as "self-consciousness, doubt, circumstance, even history" disappear. This transfiguring experience is most manifest at the moment of death, when he feels "a shift in the quality of being from the ordinary life of the room."

In describing the aftermath of Wally's death, Doty's prose becomes numinous. Although he does not adhere to any religious system, he undergoes a deep spiritual rebirth. His honesty about his own reactions, is immensely heartening. This wise, beautifully written book is recommended for its profound insight into the nature of both love and loss.