02 June 2012

Books: Plays Well with Others by Allan Gurganus (1999)

There was a Before in the artist circles that kept New York strumming in the late 1970s, where young men of all shades, sizes and age descended on the Big Apple. Most, if not all, where escaping small town middle class life, with all their obligations, all their traditions. All came there to not only let the world see what they created, but to find love. 

If only for one night that is.

I can guess that much of Allan Gurganus’ Plays Well with Others must be autobiographical, but I can’t seem to find too much evidence of that. Still, with an inventive narrative and a sense of emotional punch that made those days seem so much fun, we meet Hartley Mins, a young writer who arrives in Manhattan just before the onslaught of AIDS. Through his narrative we get to meet composer Robert Christian Gustafson, an impossibly good-looking man from Iowa, son of a preacher. Of course, Hartley falls for him, but he gets caught In Robert’s wake because those good looks get Robert everything he wants, anyone he wants, both men and women. 

Also along for the ride is Angelina "Alabama" Byrnes, a failed debutant struggling to make her paintings mean something. And like then, as today, these friends take shelter with each other, promote each other's work, and compete sexually. And become the family of understanding souls that somehow got lost from where they grew up. When tragedy strikes, this circle grows up fast, somehow finding, at the worst of times, the truest sort of family.

Not sure this was, at the time of publication, the AIDS crises great novel, but I’m struck with the idea that while there has been tons of nonfiction books published over the last twenty to 30 years after it began, I’m guessing (though I may be wrong here) not many novels about that era have been published. Well, at least by well-known authors like Gurganus (who is also the author of the huge 1989 best-seller The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All). Still, we lost so many that part of the problem may be that there is no one left to tell the tale. In the end, it’s a deeply engaging novel about flawed, well-meaning people; but can also be describes as a valentine to dear friendships, and a canticle to a brilliant and now-vanished world.

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