Obituary: Donald Rawley

Click to follow
LIKE all the true stars, Donald Rawley was very, very good at entrances and at exits - in real life and in his writing.

He first came to public attention as a writer of humid and verdant poetry. His five collections - Duende, Sirens, Steaming, Malibu Stories and Mecca - garnered him several awards, much critical praise and a fan-base that above all loved to hear these poems performed, with Rawley commanding the stage like a ringmaster. He also became a notable article-writer in California - his pieces in the legendary (and recently deceased) magazine Buzz glittered and dazzled. He brought the viperish tongue of Capote and the consummate elegance of Fitzgerald together to pin febrile, languid LA society to the wall for all to see clearly. (Several of those pieces together with other essays are to be gathered together and published in book form as Letters from Hollywood next year.)

And then he did what he had to do: he took this rich matter, took his gifts for seeing it more clearly than most, and turned it into great fiction. He began publishing his short stories in the early 1990s, in the New Yorker, Harper's and elsewhere. With them, he took his reader into a world crazy with heat and desire, peopled by the misplaced and the misbegotten, lost souls and those lost to sex, and he tried to report the intensity of feeling he found there with the accuracy (and artistry) of a news photographer.

What resulted is a series of stories, from "Rattlesnake Season" via "Honey Carter" to "Casa Alegre", that deserve to remain read for years to come in the Californian line cracked by Fitzgerald and extended by Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler. Fourteen of those stories are gathered together in Slow Dance on the Fault Line (his first book of fiction), whose publication in 1997 saw Rawley acclaimed in the Independent by Elizabeth Young as the literary newcomer of the year.

A longer tale - in some measure his own - of a boy coming of age into his sexuality, "The Night Bird Cantata", is due for publication, in a volume with Rawley's four great last stories, later this summer. It is exceptionally sad that he will not live to see it appear; but, like all durable art, it would have outlived its creator in any event and will be part of his legacy to the world - like his singular collection of outsize jewellery.

His love of language and his ability to find the peculiar dignity of those in whom most would not trouble to seek any made him an unusually and expressively tolerant writer, and in person his refusal to let bodily or historical circumstance prejudice judgement or progress was equally impressive. He made so very small a meal of having Aids, defied its encroachment so very unheroically, that is without palaver, without a trace of self- pity, that he will remain a beacon of right behaviour to all of those whom he brushed with his gown.

Donald Paul Rawley, writer: born Chicago 11 October 1957; died Sherman Oaks, California 3 May 1998.