Plays Well with Othersby Allan Gurganus
In his widely read, prizewinning Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Allan Gurganus gave fresh meaning to an overexplored American moment: 1860-65. He now turns that comic intensity and historical vision to another war zone: entry-level artistic Manhattan 1980-95. In his first novel since Widow, Gurganus offers us an indelible, addictive praise-song to New York… See more details below
In his widely read, prizewinning Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Allan Gurganus gave fresh meaning to an overexplored American moment: 1860-65. He now turns that comic intensity and historical vision to another war zone: entry-level artistic Manhattan 1980-95. In his first novel since Widow, Gurganus offers us an indelible, addictive praise-song to New York's wild recent days, their invigorating peaks and lethal crashes.
It's 1980, and Hartley Mims jr., a somewhat overbred Southerner, arrives in town to found his artistic career and find a Circle of brilliant friends. He soon discovers both Robert Christian Gustafson, archangelic boy composer of Symphony no. 1: The Titanic, and Alabama Byrnes, a failed Savannah debutante whose gigantic paintings reveal an outsized talent that she, five feet tall, can't always live up to.
This circle--sexually venturesome, frequently hungry, hooked on courage, caffeine, and the promise of immortality--makes history and most everybody else. Their dramatic moment in New York history might've been a collaboration begun, as a toast, by Cole Porter and finished, as pure elegy, by Poe himself. Plays Well with Others is a fairy tale. It has a Legend's indoctrinating charm and hidden terrors. It chronicles a ragtag group of gifted kids who come to seek their fortunes; they find the low-paying joys of making art and the heady education only multiple erotic partners can provide. Having mythologized each other through the boom years, having commenced becoming "names," they suddenly encounter a brand-new disease like something out of fifth-rate sci-fi. Friends are soon questioning how much they really owe each other; they're left with the ancient consolation of one another's company and help. We watch this egotistic circle forge its single greatest masterwork: a healthy community.
The novel, a sort of disco requiem-mass, divides itself into three symphonic movements: "Before," "After," and "After After." The work concludes in a homemade paradise that resembles Hartley Mims's own starter vision of all that seemed waiting--latent and convivial--in New York itself.
This is a work that could've only been written now, in our age of medical advances, written about these unsuspecting unsung heroes of a medieval scourge's first endgame moves among us. Plays Well with Others becomes a hymn to the joys and woes of caretaking (for waning parents and young friends). Allan Gurganus has created a deeply engaging narrative about flawed, well-meaning people who seem lifted from our own address books. His book offers an obsessive love story, a complex vision of our recent past, and an emotional firestorm--a pandemic's long-awaited great novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
Plays Well with Others is the memoir of one Hartley Mims Jr., an eager young talent from North Carolina, already in his early 30s when the novel begins, who aspires at first to be a painter but moves toward writing in fairly short order. In his mind, the line between one creative endeavor and another is almost completely blurred by ambition, sex, high spirits, good friends and the sheer throbbing energy of the magic city.
"For me, New York meant the chance of having fun while creating something true and beautiful," says Hartley, "a chance of lowering my address book's bucket into the deepest, coolest waters I could find." The image of Hartley's address book (or, rather, books, since he goes through nine or 10 of them as his friends begin to die) presides over the novel like the guest list of the "Titanic" -- a not incidental comparison, since Hartley's friend and heartthrob, the composer Robert Gustafson, is working on a "Titanic" symphony before, during and after his descent into AIDS. Robert is a breathtakingly beautiful Midwestern composer, "the greatest beauty of the 1970s Manhattan nights ... intensely popular at steam baths and in the backs of parked trucks along West Street where forthright boys passed fluids to and fro, past jets of spit and spunk, a secret virus riding all that liquid living pleasure." Neither Hartley as a narrator nor Gurganus as an author makes any kind of apology for the behaviors that led a whole generation of gay men to their doom.
"O, I long to tell a Fairy Tale," Gurganus cries. "It is a true one. Not to give away the end, but most of the best fairies die ... We were children. We thought no one had ever been wilder or smarter than we." That Gurganus is a "Southern" writer becomes almost painfully apparent as his tale progresses; I found the novel rather too thick with phrase, too self-consciously "playful." It's also too intent on crafting and shaping the thoughts and reactions of its characters -- not just Hartley, but Gustafson, too, and their wise, hard-as-nails, ex-debutante companion, painter Alabama Byrnes, whose "weird combination of garden-party girlishness and toad-collecting male-childness" serves as a predictable foil and mirror for the "fairies" at the heart of the story.
On the other hand, anyone who can write the simple declarative sentence "Thirty dildoes are a lot of dildoes" knows which side his book is buttered on. This is a wickedly funny novel, unsentimental, free of self-exculpation and determined to keep a bright face on things despite the subject matter. "Don't worry," says Hartley/Gurganus, "I can still be amusing. They always liked that in me." -- Peter Kurth
Narrator Hartley Mims, a writer who migrated in 1980, when he was in his early 30s, from Falls, North Carolina, to Manhattan, begins his story with a Prologue set 14 years later, on the occasion of the horrifying, lingering death of his friend and soulmate Robert Gustafson, long renowned as "the prettiest boy in New York," though only minimally acclaimed as the composer of an ambitious musical work whose theme is the launching and sinking of the Titanic. That image, along with several equally telling monitory metaphors (a street mugging that causes scarring and temporary blindness, friends first meeting at a VD clinic, Mahler's "Songs for Dead Children"), casts an ominous shadow over vividly evoked scenes of erotic play, artistic (and artful) posturing and clowning, and the up-and-down friendships that bond Hartley forever with his beloved (bisexual) Robert, their best gal-pal, heterosexual Angelina "Alabama" Byrnes (a Jackson Pollocklike painter with a splash or two of real genius), and several other intimates who, like Hartley, exercise their gayness in a feverish atmosphere that only gradually reveals its lethal malignity. The writing is pure pleasure throughout: alert, witty, and studded with virtuoso phrasemaking. Yet one must object that by sentimentalizing his characters as doomed "children" (a theme adumbrated by the witty title), Gurganus risks robbing them of their dignity as responsible adults. The point, of course, is that they're both.
Gurganus may not, therefore, be the spokesman for his generation that Plays Well seems to claim, but he's unquestionably one of its most provocative and interesting stylists.
Read an Excerpt
I don't consider myself psychic, just lucky--with friends.
Shall we start with the recent playful miracle? How fast a migraine can clarify to the buzz of good champagne! I am riding the taxi toward La Guardia airport, I'm hurrying to the old house I now occupy. My ticket to North Carolina is nonrefundable, I feel glad to be headed South. I sit studying the purple turban of a driver whose name is, according to the card depicting him, Krishna. Suddenly my forehead--from just over the eyebrows to where hairline once reigned--goes exquisite and sneezy as with some ice-cream headache. I look to the left of Krishna's ordered headdress. I see a peeling decal, "I (Heart) New York." I know.
"Excuse me, Mr. Krishna, sir? We must do a U-ie. I am going to miss my plane. We will now be heading back into the City. There's a little downtown street. I can help navigate. You will double-park, please. In thirty seconds I'll know if it's still there. I bet you anything it is."
Is, is vhhat, szir?
"One chip of paint on the backside of a radiator near our table at the coffeehouse. We all wrote on it. That chip is lying on the tile floor underneath. Piece maybe five inches long. Tomorrow, she will sweep it out. I'm this sure. Look," and, through the open plastic panel, I shove my very white-man-in-his-forties hand. It is trembling, that happy, wobble wobble. I feel proud of my hard-earned uncontrol.
Dark eyes in the rearview mirror gauge my blue-gray ones (brown can "go into" blue more often than blue'll ever fit brown). Mr. Krishna tells me, "Szir, you are having veesion. I vill join you in showing I know what veesions are. Am off-duty. Krishna he believe your veeeesion."
I cannot say how much it meant to get a free ride, forty dollars' worth. Of course, I later paid him anyway. That's part of what you learn. From taking care of people. To accept whatever they can offer. Then you try and pay it back quick. That helps them to give more, which helps them.
He speeds into the web of nighttime Manhattan; things either blink or hide; he stops, he activates the blinkers. I dash into a store all new to me. No coffee smell, no crowd. It's become one of those short-lived shops selling African crafts. The entrance stands guarded by wooden giraffes, near-lifesized, spotted in darker shellac. A dashikied clerk chats up her only customer. I feign shopping. I pass bright crocheted hats you could fit over world globes. I find four bolt holes. Here our group's table once stood. Behind it, the old bowlegged radiator that we sat on during our worst winters.
The owner seems occupied and I, clear of sightlines, drop to my knees. I reach, blind, beneath a radiator still half-warm. I pull fourth a handful. Paint chips, each flake no longer than a feather. My palm closes around them, careful not to crush one. I thank the woman, praise her loot, swear I'll be back and, smuggling litter, jump into Krishna's chariot. It, participatory, squeals off.
When he sees me sorting through my lead-based tea leaves, sees me leaning toward street lamps and stores' neon, Krish, unbidden, ignites the overhead lamp. "Here we are!" I call.
"You are finding, good. What exactly are finding, sir?"
"We all signed this. One night, half-drunk after performing for each other, our works about Paradise, we piled downstairs, needing caffeine, we make a pact to live forever in and out of art, to visit each other's podunk hometowns, scenes of our own first sex crimes. Then each of us, using a yellow felt pen, let a single line spell all our names as one long, perfect, brand-new word, Mr. Krishna."
My head doesn't hurt now, I feel ecstatic. "Krishna, sir? how'd I guess that a woman would sweep it away by noon? How'd I understand our name was still tucked under there tonight only? How'd I know that, buddy?"
Came the calming word. "Veesion."
II. As one of their caretakers, I am taking care to save a record.
(Somebody has to).
By now, my nerves are shot though my news is good: today, at last, my every dying one is safely dead.
Right now, a Thursday, for the first time in over a decade, this very morning--sunny, slight breeze from the northwest--my drycleaned funeral suit slid back into its closet, upstairs, I am allowed to guiltlessly ask, "So, Hartley, buddy, how 'bout an onion bagel for starters? Sound good? Maybe squeeze those navel oranges for juice." My last sick friend finally found peace in this very house, ten days back, in an antique bed, inherited.
This might not sound like much of an achievement, but oh and oy, is it ever! Maybe my rejoicing strikes you as a wee bit weird? I know only this: I can wake up and not wonder first thing, "Has the gasping started? Will they reimburse his apartment security deposit? Which of his aunts did I forget to phone?"
Now...Where was I?
If you go down on the Titanic--the saga of your drowning becomes just one gust in the vacuum of a famous ship ending. The vessel's destruction outranks your own. Who will see your last three air bubbles rising to the surface of that much black ice water? We have all been upstaged by the newsworthiness of our particular disasters. This is just one of the ways History snubs us.
I now make monthly payments on this clunky, comfortable house (circa 1900); I own that dull Ford wagon (circa 1990) parked out back. Having spent some decades blinking, I am hiding here.
This, you see, is my life's AD/BC revolution. I, Richard Hartley Mims, junior, am briefly returned to my home state, to bovine health, to my own caretaking. So nice you're here; you, alive, too. What a coincidence. That gives us something undeserved in common. I need to testify. The tale of them should ride one long gasp across this first morning I feel fully safe. I need to tell our history quick.
I want it stated in a way as literal as those guides so popular at our public libraries.
"How to Tile Your Own Patio in Under Six Hours, No Previous Experience Required!"
I want it rendered into mild, safe steps.
"How to Survive the Loss of Your Beloved Address Book in Under Fifteen Years, How Not to Numb Every Inch of Your Interior While Doing So, What to Make of Their Remains, and How to Go On, Having Forfeited Your Pals and So Much of Your Previous Experience! First Time Every Time."
The relief today feels like this: having borne all the children you could ever want, you finally choose to get your tubes tied. No further worry about preventing other babies, ever. The perilous fertility has ceased.
My own artistic generation, gay and not--so essentially and goofily good--idealists for just as long as we could be, longer--is now, before age fifty, often good and dead. But not me.
There is one big advantage to getting left back.
Now I KNOW I am alive. Turns out, that is a huge plus. It makes you concentrate. Suspecting you're alive and fairly strong, that helps you let cabbies rise, godlike, to your own occasion. Your duties as a nurse now force you to half-medically forgive yourself. There's another main joy in being the representative left back: I am allowed, even encouraged, to remember them. You will not believe these people that I got to love for years. I still do!
I have always been so lucky in my friends. Tell me I am not the jinx that "disappeared" them.
A week and a half ago, just after the exit of my best surviving pal, a final survivor of the Titanic died. She had been just five when the liner sank. Last words her father spoke to her from deck? "Hold Mummy's hand very tight. Now go and be a good girl."
She recalled everything. Considering the darkness--certain noises stayed especially real. After the hulk's immense last gasp, from one cold lifeboat where she drifted bundled with her mother in her mother's coat, the child heard many swimmers scream. Such cries. But, she reported, what soon sounded even worse was the quickly spreading silence. One by one, from a darkness out of Dante, so very fast in water this freezing, all the screaming singly ceased.
It was, this old woman (never married) recounted, the stillness afterwards that scared her most. "Out there, floating, in the dark, it became so quiet, you could not believe that a single noise was being made anywhere else on earth."
That is where I live this morning.
The phone is idled. I now take messages for no one else. True, my grandmother's mantel clock ticks on. (Not even silence ever quite mutes that.) I tell myself I mustn't burn my only bagel.
These days people newly sick with it expect to live much longer. Great. But not my crowd. Always pirate pioneers, we were, alas, among its first. The long-promised boat, tiny but already there at the horizon, seems to finally be coming in! It is a boat my darlings missed.
Now everything is slowed and eased and lazied. I have just myself to care for. I am, increasingly, a cinch. Keep it fed, keep it warm, keep things quiet. I've lost a lot but learned so much in losing them. It complexly simplifies you. Last night, showering, you know, I shocked myself. I almost hummed--four bars from an old Lerner musical.
I begin to guess what has just happened--what delicate, expensive ship so recently slid under. Look, I'll squeeze those eight nice oranges. They've only just begun to "turn." Too much juice for one bachelor, but it'll probably get drunk. Simple pleasures. A few sure things now get me through.
Today, no waiting for three doctors' grand rounds, no single ending whimper. Which reminds me of a tacky joke.
It was told at the start of the plague. It was told about a gorgeous Miss America, disqualified. A committee found that, precrown, this ambitious hardworking girl had made some lesbian porn. A girl has to eat.
Q: What is the difference between that Miss America and the Titanic?
A: "At least you know how many people went down on the Titanic!"
My dead friends, see, just urged me to offer you this sleazy joke. Departed, they can bear most anything but solemnity, especially solemnity about THEM. My circle misses noise, brass, vamping, and action for the sake of action's being pretty.
Now, I can bear everything but loudness. I live in a small village. I like its evening train whistles and morning mockingbirds. I dread old New York's pointless crash-cart's frenzy. Now I sit here in a foursquare kitchen, not some apartment's narrow galley.
I am five hundred miles due south of Manhattan. I am safe from the wild silver city I still adore.
Here, I am determined to stay basic, How To. On-Off. On. How to live at six-forty a.m. How to keep your house hushed. My phone is yet asleep, if not quite dead. Out there, the garbage men keep banging cans so loud, cleaning up after the spoilt sleepers they secretly hope to wake. I identify with those garbage men. Wake up, beloved litterers of my life!
O, I long to tell a Fairy Tale. It is a true one. Not to give away the end, but most of the best fairies die. I want to tell about our crowded hearty "Before." It will, I hope, outlast my pals' more recent spindly "After." Now we have floated to smoother waters, a continental divide, the "After After" of this plague. From here, to me, "Before" looks even holier. We were children. Because we thought no one had ever been older or smarter than we. Before they became strawmen by Giacometti (his sculpted figures predicted the disease) my boys and girls were gorgeous, strong-backed, impenitently sexual, ambitious, irritating, adorable, high-energy, lost and found then lost, the best hopes for our passions now-so-antique-seeming--painting, writing, composing.
Don't worry: I can still be amusing. They always liked that in me.
Even their sadness often happened very funny. Disaster never rushed you from the direction that you bravely faced. From behind, it jammed its knees into the backs of yours. It played too well with you. It did play very rough.
Look, I've squeezed this juice, for us alone. What a color! Let me pour yours into Granny Halsey's only leaded cut-glass tumbler not yet broken. With your permission, and in your warming company, may I award myself a morning off? A whole one, too. No changing sheets. No bureaucratic mop-up. No dealing with the parents. No talk of sick, sicker, sickest. Let's end all emergency thinking. Please.
I inherited those crystal pendants there from Robert. I strung them in three eastern windows that'd feed them each dawn's best. I cannot say I bought this house only because its kitchen faces sunnyside-up; but the brilliance of those crystals has become, for me, our Robert's own.
I'm now an early riser. One blessing of the plague, I need less sleep. Even when I try and force myself to stay in bed, I wake by sitting upright, feeling stressed but needed. I rest here with my coffee in night's final dark. I wait for day's first color. My hot mug, caretaken, is circled by two hands merely warm but still glad to feel useful. I welcome light. I dare it not to come.
You may think me superstitious (oh, by now I've grown quite pagan!). But, some mornings . . . I speak to hatching prism brilliance. There'll be a first wink, usually redness, then an almost comical glimmer, all points.
"Well, star, hi. Look at you, back everywhere. RobertRobertRobert."
Rainbow saturates one kitchen drawer pull with his old drama, motion, value.
I have a minute now my friends are finally courteously (slowly, then suddenly all too quickly) dead. All of it remembers like some country tale concerning lethal gorgeous city life. I guess, it is one. A whole Village fell asleep and only a few of us woke up, got out. Then, lucky, later, we are allowed to wander back in, among the wreckage, gathering precious evidence. Here, a long name on one piece of paint, the magic beans--retrieved. I get to spill them.
Oh, but we thought that we were truly something!
Boy, but I have really meant to get to this.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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