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Plays Well With Others

by Allan Gurganus

Faber, pounds 9.99

You would expect this kind of narcissistic Manhattan Aids novel from Edmund White (indeed, he delivered it last year in The Farewell Symphony), but maybe not from Allan Gurganus. He is better known for the popular Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a virtuoso piece narrated by a 99-year-old civil-war widow from Falls, Carolina.

But there are other catastrophies besides the civil war in US history. In a deliberate cross-reference to the earlier work, is also narrated by a widow from Falls, Carolina. This time, however, the voice is that of a gay man's. Hartley Mimms is a small- town boy come to Manhattan in the late Seventies to whoop it up and devote some of his time to becoming a writer - the same story as in White's book. Pretty much everyone he knows is talented and good-looking (yeah, right).

As with White, a musical theme pervades. The Aids-related death of composer Robert bookends the sprawling narrative and his cheesy symphonic obsession with the Titanic is offered as a key symbol for the epidemic.

A certain amount of artistic inflation lurks in the spaces between Gurganus's many, non-linear river-flood paragraphs. In the story itself, the art and musical landscape that Mimms inhabits is not convincingly cutting- edge. However, the complex relationship between the woman artist Alabama, the drop-dead gorgeous bisexual composer Robert and the gay narrator is wittily observed.

Both White and Gurganus share a beady-eyed attention to sex but not much sensuality. Sexual effects are created superficially from a centrifuge of bodies, rather than from the volatility of individual desires. Everything is ostensibly about people and sex and warmth, and yet these books are sometimes nothing more than a sequence of chilly, beautifying mirrors shifted around for effect. is above all a love letter to Manhattan. Anyone who has ever been in love with that metropolis will ache to many of the sentiments expressed here.

The watered silk of White's prose appeals to many, but I prefer Gurganus. His wounded Brodkey-esque heft, with its intemperate but pneumatic qualities, easily suits the subject. This isn't the "great Aids novel" but Gurganus, in mentioning Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year as an analogy to his own work, indicates that it will take a further generation to encompass the ramifications of the disease, and a future writer to understand it all.

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