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Like the Titanic, which pops up in Allan Gurganus’ new novel Plays Well With Others as a scale model, a farewell symphony, andmost disappointinglyas a bludgeoning metaphor, Plays Well’s three main characters are creations both grand and fragile. The son of a Southern millionaire, Hartley is a survivor, the self-appointed chronicler who looks back on the years he spent with Angelina, another transplanted Southerner, and Robert, “the youngest Eagle Scout in Cedar Rapids history” and, later, “the prettiest boy in New York of his decade.”
It is the 1980s, and while Jay McInerney’s unnamed narrator toils in the bowels of the New Yorker in Bright Lights, Big City and Patrick Bateman murders and eats his ex-girlfriends in American Psycho, Gurganus’ three friends work to bury their pasts and re-create themselves as successful artists. Hartley writes, Angelina paints, and Robert composes music. Strung together, their early experiences in N.Y.C. are a laundry list of what everyone young and artistic in New York goes through. They get mugged, come out of the closet, take crap jobs, find mentors, sit around drinking lots of coffee, browse used bookstores, rage against their parents, andof coursehave lots and lots of sex.
Along the way they become, if not household names, then at least neighborhood celebrities. Hartley’s first short story is published. Angelina, name changed to Alabama to invoke the fortune of Georgia O’Keeffe and Tennessee Williams, begins to show. The first two movements of Robert’s musical re-invention of the Titanic’s watery end are conducted by no less than Aaron Copland. “In memory,” remembers Hartley, “the morning when we heard the first of Robert’s First remains the light-filled high point of our innocence, being the last full day of it.” This is Plays Well at its most manipulative. An uninvited guest, its calling card an “angered purple-red-black” corruption on the composer’s wrist noticed only by Hartley, has shown up at the exact moment of Robert’s greatest triumph. The AIDS shark, circling Gurganus’ heroes for some 200 pages now, has finally closed in on them.
Not simply a coming-out/coming-of-age narrative like Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room Is Empty, nor merely a story about struggling artists in New York like Wilton Barnhardt’s amazingly funny Emma Who Saved My Life, Plays Well tries for something greater: to pay tribute to the “ragged-ass impromptu village” of artists and friends that was, in Hartley’s words, “maybe more important than any single work of art we had yet made” and to search for meaningand bettermentin the most evil disease of our time. Sadly, Hartley’s voice as narrator isn’t up to the task.
Recounting the quotidian emotions and experiences he and his friends ride out while living in “the Sewer,” Gurganus’ stand-in just barely gets away with oversentimentalized descriptions and sudden, uncensored declarations like, “Cherries, especially the first ones each year, always make me happy.” More problematic are Hartley’s meditations on the AIDS epidemic, which are filled with portentous language”It was among us”and regularly fall back on trite platitudes: “Be careful what you wish for,” “There are worse things than dying young,” and “We never even knew what hit us.”
If Hartley’s language fails, so does the daisy chain of clichés Gurganus puts his characters through. Anyone at all familiar with gay literature or theater after 1985 will recognize the scene of Hartley’s shock at not having recognized a former hard-bodied Adonis because he has wasted away to only bone and tendon. Included, too, are the friend who tests positive for HIV but denies it, the dying friend’s parents arriving in New York with pained smiles plastered on their faces, and the detour into a bathhouse for anonymous sex. (Gurganus does add one twist here: Hartley narrowly escapes what would probably have been a fatal encounter with a flight attendant. “Spreading joy?” Hartley asks, and when the attendants answers, “D’accord. Spreading, anyway,” it is clear Guadalupe has injected into Plays Well the quasi-apocryphal figure Patient Zero, the French-Canadian steward who purportedly began the infection spreading.)
Plays Well is at its best when Gurganus comes up for air and takes a break from detailing not only his characters’ death rattles but also their relentless, pathological efforts to be cool, successful, “socially respectable young bohemians.” For instance, a welcome honesty and plain joy spill out of Hartley’s pen when he writes of the time he and his chosen familysoon to be picked off one by one by diseasespend an afternoon sledding and playing in New York’s snow-blanketed streets. Similarly true and effective are the scenes between Hartley and his parents. Exhausted from caring for his ravaged friends, Hartley goes to visit his mother and father in Florida for the holidays. There, he finds not the invincible ogre and cowed woman of his youth, but a man living out his last days and a woman waiting for her life to begin. The exchanges they sharefull of pain and a desperate need to reconcileare agonizingly real. When son asks father if he misses golf, and father replies, “Sure. But, pity like yours really only makes things feel worse,” a great and terrible pit opens between them. It is this depth and understanding that is missing from the rest of Gurganus’ novelan inexcusable flaw when writing about something as monstrous as young people dying of AIDS.
Tony Kushner, author of the triumphant Angels in America, a drama about politics, religion, and AIDS, writes that “to use human suffering, whether it originates in viral infection or from malignant human agency or from a blending of the two, is necessary and appalling, neither more one than the other, always unbearable, always unavoidable, a terrible mandate, always both.” It is an awful proposition, Kushner is saying, to write about (and perhaps profit by) something as terrible as this plagueawful but required if we want to plumb the depths with our art, gain insight, understand, and, if it’s done well enough, even heal. Clearly, Plays Well With Others works toward remembering and elegizing the dead; that, I’m sure, is Gurganus’ honorable impulseand Hartley’s, when he, connecting the dots between AIDS survivors and those who escaped the Titanic’s sinking, writes that “only a few of us remain alive, holding flashlights, somehow still breathing at this depthsaying aloud, to them and to eternity, the names of these, our adored fellow passengers, lost.” Gurganus, like Kushner, recognizes the need to stare AIDS down, to force some good out of it; unfortunately there is no payoff at the end of Plays Well. It neither moves its readers, noreven worsemoves them to action.CP