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The Boston Phoenix Allan Gurganus

"Plays Well With Others"

By David Kurnick

PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS, by Allan Gurganus. Alfred A. Knopf, 355 pages, $24.

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  When Allan Gurganus published his first novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, in 1989, critics hailed it as a feat of the sympathetic imagination. How had a male novelist in his 30s approximated the tone of a 99-year-old woman who'd outlived her husband, her children, and every one of her friends? What many critics failed to notice was that Lucy Marsden's story of young men killed in their prime would be intensely familiar to an inhabitant of artistic Manhattan in the 1980s. Subtract the gingham and the buttery accents, and Confederate Widow looks eerily like a story of AIDS.

Of course, the novel was an imaginative feat, a fully convincing evocation of almost two centuries of Southern history. In Plays Well with Others, his second novel, Gurganus has turned to material more clearly rooted in his own experience. But his fans will be glad to see that he depicts the 1980s with the same dense specificity he brought to the earlier book. America before AIDS, the new novel suggests, is a place as hard to imagine as the South before Reconstruction.

Hartley Mims Jr., who narrates Plays Well with Others, calls the pre-AIDS era simply "Before." The novel follows Hartley (an aspiring writer from North Carolina who has a lot in common with Gurganus) as he arrives, breathless with excitement, in New York. Awestruck by the city, he is equally impressed by the two other artists-in-training who become his best friends: the beautiful, blond composer Robert Gustafson and the tough, lusty painter Alabama (née Angie) Byrnes. Hartley and Angie share a Southern background and an overwhelming desire to sleep with the (fortunately) bisexual Robert; all three share a dedication to making massive, romantic works of art.

Gurganus's depiction of these three imaginary careers is funny and completely convincing. Hartley, obsessed with the Southern past and his own libidinal impulses, slaves away at historical novellas "about honest farmers whose prettiest sons (preferably shirtless) got bad-hurt way back when." Angie's vast canvases suspend ghostly domestic scenes over whorls of color, while Robert's lush, ambitious first symphony is self-consciously titled The Titanic. Angie, Hartley, and Robert are competitors and sometimes lovers, but mostly they are friends, and Gurganus depicts the particularities of friendship -- the strange evolution of private jokes, the treacheries that inevitably accompany intense intimacy -- better than anyone writing today. (Even readers who find it hard to appreciate the aloof Robert's appeal will agree that Angie's allure, from the day Hartley first encounters her hogging the phone at a free VD clinic, is undeniable.)

It's difficult not to share Gurganus's palpable enthusiasm for the whole world of "Before," a candy-colored realm suffused with an insouciant eroticism.

Picture that last tea-dance in the first-class ballroom of the "Titanic," just before the ice. Imagine how all these pretty people presently being charming and sociable and complimenting each others' foxtrotting will soon line up for too few lifeboats.

The iceberg that interrupts Hartley's party is the Kaposi's sarcoma lesion that appears one day on Robert's wrist and signals the advent of "After." Suddenly, the gleefully aimless lives of these characters become relentlessly focused; suddenly Gurganus reveals that a plot (and the literary term here resonates with its conspiratorial meaning) is out to get these characters. After "After," the beginning of the novel looks like so much amiable prehistory. Despite their strivings, it turns out the group's greatest masterpiece will be "the nursing, cheering, burying of our own."

The narrative perfectly fits the strengths of Gurganus's style, which first beguiles us and then puts us through the emotional wringer. Gurganus is never afraid to lose his writerly cool. Like his earlier books, Plays Well ventures into registers "serious" novelists usually avoid: in addition to the wrenching moments we expect from fiction about AIDS, the novel contains passages that are chatty, sentimental, folksy. In Gurganus's hands these seem less like weaknesses than legitimate weapons in a resourceful writer's arsenal.

With its unusual typography and its opulent, sometimes strange language, Plays Well is above all unabashedly artistic, knocking itself out to convey an effect and coming at the reader with more music and color than most Mardi Gras parades. In this, it is very like the group of friends it describes. Its title, a "direct quote" from Hartley's weary kindergarten teacher, exactly captures the particular charm of this milieu, and its particular strength. Plays Well with Others is finally a tribute to a group of friends who refused to keep their hands to themselves, and refused to turn in their crayons at the end of recess.

David Kurnick is deputy editor of Transition.

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