Lines of beauty and depravity

This year's Booker Prize winner follows the exploits of a gay man in Thatcher's glamorous London

If Henry James could brave one more curtain call, he'd find a more encouraging audience than the one that booed him off stage after "Guy Domville." James has become something of a literary rock star this year. He's the subject of fictional biographies by two of the British Isles' most prominent writers, Colm Tóibin and David Lodge. And his spirit hovers all over last week's Man Booker Prize winner, "The Line of Beauty," by Alan Hollinghurst. Can the reality TV show - "Serve Tea to Henry" - be far behind?

Despite its glacial pacing and cerebral themes, Tóibin's novel, "The Master," climbed onto the American bestseller list for a few weeks this summer, looking a little uncomfortable next to Janet Evanovich's "Ten Big Ones" and Plum Sykes's "Bergdorf Blondes." The Booker Prize ($90,000) will propel "The Line of Beauty" up the list too, as it's already done in England, and that popular exposure will be interesting to evaluate.

Line for line, Hollinghurst's novel about London during the 1980s is the most exquisitely written book I've read in years. Witty observations about politics, society, and family open like little revelations on every page.

But it's also an explicitly gay novel. Not just a novel with some gay characters, comfortably on the side or reduced to floppy antics, à la "Will and Grace." Hollinghurst rarely strays far from his protagonist's sexual fantasies and exploits. British papers have noted that this is the first gay novel to win the Booker Prize in its 36-year history. (So much for their cosmopolitan sophistication: America's National Book Award went to an equally explicit gay book way back in 1992, an autobiography called "Becoming a Man.")

Some critics have played up the novel's political and social satire, and those elements are certainly there and brilliant, but I wonder if it's squeamishness or political correctness that keeps them from stating that this is primarily a story about gay sexuality and it contains scenes that many readers will find deeply offensive.

The novel opens in 1983 when Nick Guest, a graduate student pursuing a PhD on Henry James, moves in with the Feddens, an upper-class family in London's Notting Hill. Nick is an old Oxford chum of the family's oblivious son, and he's become the unofficial caretaker of their dangerously depressed daughter. The parents are wealthy conservatives who want to be perfectly clear that they have no objection to Nick's orientation, particularly if it remains entirely theoretical.

Nick, however, is ready to move beyond that, and the first section of the novel details his first date, an assignation with a black man he meets for sex through a personal ad. Their relationship deepens into something more meaningful, drawing Nick into the working-class life of his lover even while he floats into the lavish lifestyle of his host family: As a member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, Mr. Fedden gives Nick access to the highest level of British politics, and Mrs. Fedden comes from a family of people who exchange Gauguins as gifts.

It's the kind of crowd in which everyone is constantly aware of the flourishes of wealth but determined to treat them with casual disregard. When the piano tuner complains about the state of their instrument, Mrs. Fedden remarks quietly, "Oh, I know Liszt enjoyed playing it."

Through much of the book, his host family frets about when Mrs. Thatcher will bless them with an appearance. (Their green door must be painted blue, lest The Great Lady assume they're environmentalists.)

Hollinghurst can produce inane social banter as well as incisive social analysis. These are parties where "after pudding, the ladies withdraw," gatherings with which most readers will not have much personal familiarity. But he describes them with witty precision that captures and satirizes them simultaneously.

When the story picks up again in 1986, Nick is still living with his host family, but he's moved on from his first lover to a Lebanese millionaire who's engaged to be married. Ostensibly, they're movie producers, but mostly they watch pornography, pick up young men, and snort cocaine (a different "line of beauty"). Nick has a vague sense that this isn't a satisfying way to live, but he's mesmerized by the glare of so much money and sensualism and terrified by the prospect of loneliness.

He can't shake the sense that he's only playacting, that his ambiguous status in the Feddens' house and in his lover's life is symptomatic of some deeper failure to be an adult. Again and again, he feels outside himself, nervous about how he must look and sound.

That cramped self-consciousness complements his obsession with aesthetics, but it also makes him effete and in the end not a very effective friend to himself or those he loves. As AIDS ravages the gay community and scandal rocks the Fedden household, Nick finds himself as abandoned as he ever feared, and the compensation of beauty seems heartbreakingly tragic.

Ironically, despite all its graphic sex, a Puritanical piety seems to animate the novel. Rather than challenge any mainstream prejudices about homosexuals, "The Line of Beauty" confirms them. The most socially conservative reader won't be surprised to see here that gay men are emotionally oversensitive, sexually voracious, desperately lonely, and finally doomed. These are, after all, the stereotypes that homosexuals have labored under for years.

All this should produce a complex reception for the Booker winner. In some quarters, the novel's triumph will be a late vindication for gay literature. Others will fret over the shocking sex scenes. But anyone who reads "The Line of Beauty" will come face to face with one of the most brilliant stylists and perceptive novelists writing today.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to Ron Charles.

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