Plays Well With Others , by Allan Gurganus. Knopf, 353 pages, $25.
“New York, lean back!” Here comes Hartley Mims Jr., young man from the provinces, blissfully gay, an ambitious unpublished writer and the tirelessly chatty narrator of Allan Gurganus’ new novel. Hartley arrives in Manhattan in 1980 and quickly falls in love. He declaims his passion: “I now wanted to possess, to eat out, to rut into this, my beloved. I wanted to know its every inch. I wanted to go to town on going down on old New York. East Side was the left nipple, West Side its right, and neither would this worshipper not nibble. I’d sublet and suffuse every inner inch of it. Each brass mail slot would unlatch, all gill-slit air ducts behind buildings, I would find, rear entry. I’d have my way with every street-those one-way, and those bi.” He adds a kicker that is Walt Whitman unzipped: “I, sperm donor, my loaf all fishes, would fill all city vacancies.”
Exuberance like this is possible only in the polymorphously promiscuous heyday of New York’s gay culture, before “that spring when everything changed.” Before the plague, the city teems with swaggering young talent. After, it’s a series of hospital rooms, an emptying street haunted by stick figures in wheelchairs, “rolling Giacometti men.”
Hartley Mims calls his memoirs “The Voyage as I Saw It (1980-1995).” The title alludes to the Titanic , to the unimaginable catastrophe that sank his happy West Village world. The unsinkable vessel going under is also the inspiration for The Titanic , a symphony composed by Robert Christian Gustafson, “the greatest beauty of the late 1970’s Manhattan nights,” a bisexual Apollo, object of Hartley Mims’ undying devotion and desire. Though he has “the goods for immortality,” the gorgeous and talented Robert goes down with the ship, a representative AIDS death. Hartley nurses, then mourns him. Robert is one of 30 or so victims among Hartley’s friends; like the messengers to Job, Hartley comes to us to say, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” The lesson he wants to share, learned painfully, is that love and art endure; they trump apocalypse.
Eden and exile, pride and fall-the story line is second nature to us, and we supply a moral automatically, an old saw about reaping and sowing. Later, we revise our knee-jerk platitudes. Faced with one of the great what-goes-up-must-come-down narratives, we look for a survivor’s clear-eyed account, not a sermon or a pious cautionary tale. Now that the epidemic is less gruesomely relentless, we need a history (fiction or non-) whose meaning builds incrementally from the tiniest irrefutable detail all the way to plague-sized catastrophe.
This is a big story, bigger than the Titanic , but by telling it through Hartley, Mr. Gurganus sadly narrows the scope. Instead of showing us a social world devastated, he shows us a very self-conscious, writerly writer trying to assimilate a string of punishing personal losses. If Hartley’s memoirs were both panoramic and lovingly particularized, a rich, intimate treasury of small-scale accuracies, the approach would be more satisfactory. But though Hartley is occasionally an acute observer, he’s often vague and pompously rhetorical; his outlook is stubbornly local. Which makes Plays Well With Others seem at once claustrophobic and fuzzy.
Mr. Gurganus’ title refers to work as well as play. Hartley’s work, ideally, is a form of play, and vice versa. He has a collection of artsy friends-“the Circle,” he calls them: “We might not be a Movement yet, O.K. But aren’t we already at least a … Motion?” Keeping track of this crowd is Hartley’s self-appointed task. “Justifying the address book and loving its lives,” he tells himself, “that is your real life’s work.” At the Circle’s epicenter are Hartley and Robert Gustafson and Angelina Byrnes, a pint-size painter who shares Hartley’s sycophantic obsession with Robert and vies with Hartley, in a kind of erotic sibling rivalry, for the composer’s attention.
Angelina’s arrival on the scene is entertaining and vividly portrayed. She and Hartley first meet at a VD clinic, each shrugging off a dose of the clap (a warning ignored). Along with the other patients gathered in the waiting room, Hartley watches as Angie hogs the clinic’s pay phone and doodles on the wall with a yellow Magic Marker. She sketches a pair of voluptuous thighs clamped around the phone-“the fact that these great legs, the perfect crotch, proved sexless-offered free rein for all our venereal imaginations.” While she draws she chats, displaying a “righteous ass” that Hartley finds admirably boyish. Her Southern accent comes and goes “rheostaticly-as need (charm) required.” It’s a lovely introduction to a character; if only the rest of the novel were as inventive and precise.
Consider Hartley’s exploratory trip to the St. Mark’s Baths, “a maze devoted to sexual stalking.” He passes through a door helpfully marked “The Orgy Room” and finds 100 males, “all young to recently so. Each was naked, all were working on each other in a tumid smacking hellish lovely silence, nearly post- Titanic. In the so-called orgy room, I met the last things I’d expected: no room, an actual orgy!” A lame joke and a strained metaphor (the tired Titanic leitmotif)-an inadequate combo, what with our narrator tumbled into a vast and efficient H.I.V. dissemination center.
Hartley flees the orgy room (“I’d grown up Presbyterian, O.K.?”) and finds himself in a smaller, uncrowded steam room. He meets a sinister airline steward who has “touched down” all over the world (spreading the virus, natch). Briefly specific and appropriately terrifying, Hartley describes being “grappled” by the “slickster” steward: “I was … somewhat gingerly pinned, rump-up.” Again, he escapes. He climbs up to the roof, to open-air hot tubs, where he engages in a soft-focus romp with a featureless individual, “tender Pastoral Symphony sex.” The Muzak version?
The telling here may be vague and euphemistic, but these early adventures are more interesting than the plotless and repetitive pages that follow. How many times do we need to be told that these people are young and pretty and talented? The constant reminders remind us also that neophyte New Yorkers are often vain and fearsomely self-absorbed. Not until the epidemic strikes does the novel regain drama and specificity.
It’s hard to say what kind of distance from his narrator Mr. Gurganus tried to achieve. Both are gay writers from North Carolina, both habitually set their fiction on “native soil,” i.e. the rural South. Mr. Gurganus is the author of a best-selling first novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All . If alter-ego Hartley were as charming as his creator seems to think he is, his rambling remarks alone would perhaps do to fix the reader’s attention. But as Hartley himself admits, he is “steadily loquacious if only fitfully brilliant.” The chatter gets annoying, bubbly and whiny and schmaltzy in rapid succession, bad jokes layered with callow complaints and teary laments. For every line that smacks of genius (explaining the pull of New York as “eye greed,” for example), there are a half-dozen clinkers such as this: “Juan pulled a toothpick from his checkered shirt and glumly chewed it while giving me a brown-eyed once-over that could rotisserie a raw turkey toward being instantly honey-smoked.”
Hartley is a dedicated nurse to his stricken friends-a full-time job during a raging plague. Is Mr. Gurganus trying to show us that the heroes of the AIDS epidemic, tireless, selfless helpers, were mere humans, abundantly flawed for all their generosity? If so, he might have found a way to air these sentiments without subjecting his readers to quite so much flawed abundance.