Being no fan of the perpetual adolescence that's becoming a favored way of life, I initially found it kind of pathetic how Hartley Mims, jr., the protagonist of Allan Gurganus's new novel, still considers himself a kid when he arrives in New York at the age of 33--and continues to do so for at least the next six, seven years. Eventually, however, it became apparent that this struggling writer, who seems to be Gurganus's alter ego, is not trying to escape adulthood. Rather, he's asserting that we are, for the most part, perpetual beginners in life--almost toddlers, really--who always have something to learn; and to lose the ability to be playful while doing this learning is to be living half-dead. Not exactly a new idea, but one worth reinforcing (although unlike Hartley, I wouldn't go so far as to engage in baby talk with another adult). Perhaps it's also something that impresses itself more on artists, along with those who've endured more than a fair share of death during their lives.
The prologue to Plays Well With Others has Hartley, finally past his prime and wise enough to admit it, departed from his beloved New York and living in a village in North Carolina. Nearly all his friends have gone down with the plague that began its rampage in the '80s, and this book is his paean to their fast friendships, fast life, and, just as important, to a city set on fast-forward. Everyone is gorgeous, and they all get laid with enviable regularity and in general just seem to have too too much fun. Of course it's idealized, as Hartley freely admits; not only is self-deception one of his few remaining pleasures, it's also an essential element of his fairy tale--"one in which most of the best fairies die."
The top two fairies are, like Hartley, struggling artists: Angie (a.k.a. "Alabama") Byrnes, a painter he meets at the VD clinic; and Robert Gustafson, who, significantly, is composing a symphony about the Titanic. Robert is a soul so impossibly good-looking and kind that Hartley (gay) and Angie (straight) are both helplessly, hopelessly smitten. To their chagrin, he keeps prohibitively busy sampling the fleshly delights, male and female, of the rest of New York.
Yet in all other ways, this trio is inseparable, wired together with caffeine from the corner café that holds a table permanently reserved for them. A few other supporting characters eventually join their Circle, as Hartley self-consciously calls it, and somewhere amongst all the socializing and intrigue they find time to make their art and their careers. For as much as Plays Well With Others is an elegy for a Golden Era, it's also about creative work --work that's hard but must not become a grind; work that, without friends and without a sense of play, is not worth doing. (Thus the book's title, off-putting in its puerile allusion, becomes understandable if not really likable.)
Gurganus himself is more passionate and adept than your average worker bee. As a wordsmith, he's nothing less than delightful--unless you count clever, hilarious, sensuous, lyrical, or various other complimentary adjectives. (e.g., one of Hartley's playthings gives him "a brown-eyed once-over that could rotisserie a raw turkey toward being instantly honey-smoked"). And Gurganus's talent as a literary architect, a builder of suspense and beauty on both a grand and intimate scale, comes through with force in the book's last hundred pages, when Robert's Titanic Symphony hits the concert hall (a favor from Aaron Copland, another smitten friend) and AIDS, described as "the ultimate careerist," begins showing its work.
Not that there aren't a few quibbles. The dialogue is occasionally overdone, and some metaphors reach too far, as if Gurganus is so pleased with the setup that he can't resist announcing it. Similarly, he has a way one-upping his own last words at the end of a passage with a few even-more-last words. Worse yet are glitches of a more editorial nature: typos, extra or dropped words, repeated images and comments (too similar to be intentional), ages and other basic info about characters that doesn't jibe. Nitpicking? Yes--yet these peccadilloes are all the more glaring in a title as well written as this. If an author of Gurganus's caliber receives such care from his publisher, pity the lesser-known.
Of course, the big picture is what's important. Hartley--optimist, idealist, and now elegist--not only gets out of New York alive, but succeeds in getting a grasp on this best, headiest part of his life. Just as the artistic efforts of both Alabama and Robert bear fruit, Hartley's tale is his Big Apple.