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Books: Fun boys

Michael Arditti is far from enchanted with a rural romp
The Spell

by Alan Hollinghurst

Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99

The Archers may now feature gay characters, but not even the most radical BBC producer could dream up the sexual shenanigans that underlie the rural life of Alan Hollinghurst's new novel. The sleepy village of Litton Gambril becomes almost a suburb of Soho when Robin, a country house architect, and his lover, Justin, play host not only to Robin's gay son, Danny, and his new boyfriend, Justin's ex, Alex, but also to a "whole crowd of dizzy disco bunnies" who descend on Dorset to celebrate Danny's 23rd birthday. Even Terry, the local odd-job man, moonlights as a rent- boy.

Hollinghurst here returns to the theme of sexual compulsion that dominated his first two novels, although without the added resonance of class and history (The Swimming Pool Library) and bereavement (The Folding Star). This is a relentlessly priapic world, in which the connections between characters are exclusively sexual. With the notable exception of the village drunk and his wife, and the estate-agent object of Justin's lust, there are few heterosexual characters. Even the familial relationship of Robin and Danny is turned by sexual proclivity into one of edgy rivalry.

Alex's understanding that "sex of course was not the only way to know the world" is belied by the entire thrust of the novel. In this world, the centre of gravity is the groin. In times of crisis, whether it be the discovery of his girlfriend's pregnancy or the pain of his boyfriend's dying, Robin turns to casual sex. He meets Justin in a Clapham Common lavatory and carries him off to Dorset, where the latter, deprived of his customary amorous opportunities, spends time channel-hopping between Australian soap operas "to make sure he didn't miss any shirtless appearances of his favourite actors".

Danny is a chip off the paternal block whose "utopian policy was to have everyone once", and whose practice as a nightwatchman is to masturbate up to three times a shift. Even Alex succumbs to the lure of drugs and debauchery on meeting Danny. It is telling that the only person to express any alternative to this way of life is a prudish Scottish teetotaller, with a spiritual hotline to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who is plainly unhinged.

There is no law requiring fictional characters to be representative of anything but their author's imagination. Nevertheless, to write a novel in which virtually all the characters are gay men and then to portray them as soulless, self-obsessed hedonists with barely a redeeming feature between them, seems, to say the least, perverse. With the exception of Alex's architecture, professional lives barely rate a mention, and intellectual or spiritual life is non-existent. Even Alex's Oxford friend, the fogyish Hugh (shades of James in The Swimming Pool Library), responds to Alex's declaration of amour fou by asking "What's his dick like, by the way?" Gay fiction is often unfairly dismissed as parochial; offers a parochial vision of gay life.

Hollinghurst neither offers any comment on his characters nor sets them in any perspective other than his own pellucid prose. Rarely can the wit, sensitivity and intelligence of a novelist have seemed so at odds with his subject matter.

contains the most delicately sensuous portrait-painting, whether of a Tudor-style house or a beautiful young man. There is much brilliant imagery, such as the arts-and-crafts chairs "like conscientious objectors to the idea of comfort", and hilarious cross-purpose jokes, as when the naive Alex assumes that a druggy young man talking about "Special K" has bowel trouble. Sentence by sentence, the novel weaves its magic. And yet the enchantment of lies entirely in its style.