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.
La vie boheme in New York City in the 1980s is the setting of Gurganus's (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All) fierce, bleakly funny and resonant new novel. The twist here is that the narrator, Richard Hartley Mims Jr., and most of the other characters, are gay. In the heady years when it was chic to come out of the closet, a group of young, ambitious artists, musicians and writers descend on Manhattan from all parts of the country, possessed of talent, joie de vivre and the determination to succeed. They play the party scene, work at menial jobs to support themselves and enjoy the firm conviction that someday they will be famous. Initially, Hartley's discursive, episodic (perhaps semi-autobiographical) chronicle sometimes veers into self-absorbed prattle as he recalls his years growing up in conservative North Carolina, his fledgling efforts as a writer and his sexually charged friendship with the decade's most gorgeous man, genius composer Robert Gustafson, and with outrageous, androgynous artist Angie (aka "Alabama") Byrnes. These somewhat tedious asides are redeemed by hilarious scenes that verge on farce (30 dildoes fall out of a bag on the subway; two of Hartley's suitors meet in his closet and can't resist making love to each other). The specter of AIDs hovers over the novel, however, and gradually transforms the raunchy and pun-prone narrative into a wrenching threnody to lost youth and talent cut down. When the pandemic strikes and Hartley becomes a caretaker to his dying friends, Gurganus's gallows humor and innate compassion transform this material into a wrenching elegy for an innocent time when, to the gay community, artistic fulfillment, fame, love and happiness seemed just within reach. 100,000 first printing; Random House audio.