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  • Written by Allan Gurganus
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  • Written by Allan Gurganus
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Written by Allan GurganusAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Allan Gurganus

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On Sale: September 22, 2010
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-76413-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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aids (9) gay (7) 1980s (6) new york city (4) friendship (4)
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

With great narrative inventiveness and emotional amplitude, Allan Gurganus gives us artistic Manhattan in the wild 1980s, where young artists--refugees from the middle class--hurl themselves into playful work and serious fun.  Our guide is Hartley Mims Jr., a Southerner whose native knack for happiness might thwart his literary ambitions. Through his eyes we encounter the composer Robert Christian Gustafson, an Iowa preacher's son whose good looks constitute both a mythic draw and a major limitation, and Angelina "Alabama" Byrnes, a failed deb, five feet tall but bristling with outsized talent.  These friends shelter each other, promote each other's work, and compete erotically.  When tragedy strikes, this circle grows up fast, somehow finding, at the worst of times, the truest sort of family.

Funny and heartbreaking, as eventful as Dickens and as atmospheric as one of Fitzgerald's parties, Plays Well with Others combines a fable's high-noon energy with an elegy's evening grace.  Allan Gurganus's celebrated new novel is a lovesong to imperishable friendship, a hymn to a brilliant and now-vanished world.

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.
Allan Gurganus|Author Q&A

About Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus - Plays Well with Others

Photo © Becket Logon

Allan Gurganus lives in a small town in North Carolina. The title novella of this book won the National Magazine Prize. His other honors include the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Southern Book Prize, and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Author Q&A

Q: In your new novel, Plays Well with Others, you describe young New York artists defending each other during the siege of AIDS. Surely by now the pandemic has been treated in depth. Why your novel and this topic now?

A: I write the funniest books possible about the worst things that can happen to people. The work's energy springs from this essential tension in our lives. In Plays Well with Others, it's the Kids vs. the Virus. The book is effective to the exact degree that it stays funny. It reads like a love poem and a whodunit. Most of us kids had only lived in New York four years or so, just getting going as starving artists, just coming to depend mainly on each other. That's when the truest hardship struck. Now, medicine is improving and we know more. A novelist can look back sixteen years to the fear and heroism this epidemic first inspired. Doesn't it seem about a century ago!

You must search history to find precedents: the Abolitionists who said "Enough" and helped end slavery, the early Christians hiding while rerouting world history. My book concerns the creation of a loving, even comic, community in response to this unaccountable riptide. Most of the novel involves the founding of a group, the crossed allegiances and early promise of young artists in Manhattan. I consider the response to AIDS the greatest civilian mobilization since Abolition. First encounters with the virus made for moments both terrifying and heroic. Who will protect the village from the giant? And the little tailor volunteers. My book is told as a fairy tale. It's that improbable.

Q: Could you describe the process of writing the book? Was it long in coming?

A: Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All took me seven years towrite; White People gathered two whole decades of my stories. But the new novel could've only arrived in a rush. It was decades ingestation. But a fast delivery. Last year, just after my mother died, I reread my essay in progress called "On Whether to Purge the Dead from One's Address Book." Somehow, from November to March, after the eleven months during which both my parents expired, that essay became this novel. I had been trying to write all during my folks' declines. Now, I was suddenly spared the role of worrier and bedside attendant. Without an impending vigil, this book became my alternate task and caretaker's joy; I wrote it in longhand with such a rush of pleasure, release. I felt panicked only that I'd be hit by a truck before finishing it. The novel is a love poem to a lost community. At times, I felt like a twenty-first-century archeologist writing about Pompeii the day before that August volcano struck. Ordinary life yields such sweetness, looking back.

This book tests the possibility of what art--the most private and communal of acts--can save. It seeks to establish just how much we owe our parents. It pays tribute to that great flurry of energy, Manhattan during the 1980s. It salutes and reinvents certain of my brilliant missed ones. Finally, it asks how much caretaking costs us, the survivors.

In 1981, if you found the spot on your arm, you simply made yourself comfortable, you wrote the will, phoned your friends, got ready. It's a circumstance medieval. Those first days gave rise to much magical thinking, much Dark Ages bigotry. The moment also abounded with unpredictable braveries, often from those who seemed far too spacey, fey, or scatterbrained to endure such a literal deadline. Now, with breakthroughs in drug treatment, people (those who can afford such measures) expect longer lives with greater strength.

Those of us who, through no merit of our own, survived, can only feel permanently changed, incredibly enlarged. The pandemic enlisted us: selfish people from a selfish age. It made us nurses. And when the nursing was over, it left us philosophers, professional hospital jesters, cool-eyed witnesses, and finally rejoicers. Without it, would we still be as silly as our theme song, the glitzy disco music of 1979?

Q: You have always described yourself as a comic writer. Did you (given the subject matter of Plays Well) feel forced to suspend all that this time out?

A: Oh Lord, no. All decent after-dinner speakers start with a joke toindicate (and assure you of) impending seriousness. Only humor permitted me to get far enough in to learn the event's essential news. The decade that spilled into pandemic was such a wild romp. We took that scary energy along with us; we rode it right into the downward spiral.

As the novel progressed, I tried to preserve that sense of Preston Sturges's forward gallop, the farcical, the heartfelt, the horny, even the silly and the stupid. Glitter and dinge coexisted so happily then. There was this irresistible party-animal momentum still carrying you. That, in part, saw us through. Adrenaline, testosterone, cappuccino, cocaine, heartache alternating with the loves of your life, it makes for quite a brew. We were young and new to New York, and our talent kept us ambitious; we had this running start on life.

Writing tragically about the tragic is like trying to outstare the sun: you go blind before it does. By entering the maelstrom smiling, I replicated how we ran smack into the wall of it. The plague first registered as a prank, a little pie in the face. "No way, not us!" At first it seemed that a strong note from our parents, some reprieve from the Governor, could forestall such trouble. Till IT, we'd lived so lucky.

Q: Your novel is divided "Before," "After," and "After After"? Where does this doubled addendum come from? How does it reflect the book's moral scheme?

A: "Before" means previous to anyone's guessing we couldn't get sick with anything worse than a hangover. Before we knew that even one of us was actually, you know, mortal. "After" indicates that shocking knowledge--not even of the sickness itself, but the sudden awareness that, however gifted and good-looking and hopeful we were, we too could die, we must.

"After After" suggests today's strange limbo, a hindsight that is the historian's great advantage, sweet consolation, and steepest barrier.

But if you are true to your loved ones long enough, they can come back to you. The memories grow more textured, the detail becomes much richer. Angie Alabama Byrnes is one of three main figures of the book, a semi-deb from Savannah who comes to New York to paint, a tough sexual adventurer who happens to be as momentously gifted as she is deeply insecure. The narrator loves her and Robert Christian Gustafson, known as "The Most Beautiful Boy of His Decade in New York." He is also the composer of a Symphony Number One: The Titanic, based on his obsession with the sunken liner. How this pair and the narrator make their art and mythologize each other into being, while getting invited to all the best orgies of the period, this provides the book's forward gallop.

All the characters in my book are invented, and yet they're loving composites of the insanely attractive, deeply committed young artists I met upon arriving in New York just as the eighties did.

Q: The three main characters of your novel are artists--a composer, a painter, and the writer of the book, Hartley Mims, jr. Do you think their artistic play helped them through their communal crisis? Are artists luckier than other people in having work as their own think tank and superstitious refuge?

A: Oh, yeah. At age five, everybody is an artist. Put crayons and big paper before any kids, they're fearless and inventive and entrancing. But by age twelve, many will tell you they're "just no good at drawing." Who got to them so early? Who hurt them into giving up so soon?

The main characters of this book were too dim or pigheaded to let that self-consciousness cork them up for very long. They never gave the crayons back. What moved me, during the pandemic, was seeing my doomed friends turn to their work for answers, succor, immortality.

Plays Well with Others is a direct quote from my second-grade teacher's evaluation of my own dicey character. Such faint praise followed her accusations about my talking in class, working far below potential, being latently artistic if "actively messy."

Playing is serious business. Play is often that part of ourselves that proves most laborious to keep alive. I intended to re-create, with this book, a circle that was sexually driven, eager for attention, enragingly idiosyncratic, but dedicated to playing, in art and in playing with each other, sexually and psychically. Finally, Play gives us the sense of joy at the random. Play becomes the salvation of the book's young artists, even those who survive only in what their crayons found the time and wit to save.

Q: You served in the Navy, surviving the Vietnam War. You've said you used the experience to describe the soldiering in Widow. You also emerged from the mixed blessing of being a gay man who outlived much of his own generation in New York. Can you claim there's been a value to the pandemic's suffering?

A: In Melville's greatest story, he presents a stubborn isolated character who answers every question, "I would prefer not." That would be any sane person's answer to the curse of HIV. But given that we couldn't avoid it, considering that certain breakthroughs toward cure have been made, seeing we can now look back on its radically different early days, all we can ask now is what, if anything, we've learned.

Part of my inherent optimism as a writer comes from my belief that one can learn from experience. A writer with Big Lessons to impart is dreary. But any novelist unwilling to let his characters grow within their own bettering experience is simply not worth reading. I don't read or write as an escapist, I read and write to enter the world correctly. Which is, as it happens, the most narcotic form of escape, into self-knowledge.

Q: The self-knowledge that humor provides?

A: Oh, yes. The story of the person battling, then going down to the disease, has been told and retold, and often very well. Sometimes such accounts suffer from a pathos that blinds us to the real motion of irony, the humor that exists in every human moment, even mortal ones, especially those. Gallows humor, I believe, ranks among our species' greatest achievements.

What I've tried to do in Plays Well with Others is chronicle that caretaker's role. I mean the person stuck in the unasked-for role as Last One Standing. The guy who cleans out the apartments, who greets the Midwestern parents, who defoliates the home place of didoes and porn, the one who then escorts the bodies home. It's left to this survivor to say what, if anything, has been gained.

Finally, salvation is the impulse to seek some. I feel, in completing this book, that I've partly repaid a great debt. Not only to friends alive, not just to my much-missed parts, but to those fellow-sufferers, the fun-loving readers I've not yet met. Writing is one form of caretaking. We all doubt that, offered the challenge, we would really buck authority. Might we really hide our endangered friends in our basement? Could we risk the necessary sacrifices?

To have taken care of your loved ones, to feel quietly proud of facing the greatest imaginable losses, to have somehow resisted cynicism and the Niagara attractions of death itself, this constitutes a huge subject, a great lesson. Only in creating Angie, Robert, and Hartley, with their unreasoning love for each other across the improbabilities of sexual tastes and sudden Job-like woes, only in finishing the book did I feel some cooling final chord change, resolution. I hope some of that music lives in many sentences of this novel. It is, at great cost, a funny book and, I hope, still a very sexy one. It must be both, because that young--we were all hilarious and gorgeous. We assumed that everybody was and would always be. We assumed so much, despite everything that had to happen.

Writing the book was a sustaining act, the love it released in me felt brand-new somehow. It literally saved my life. Remembering-inventing Then and Them pulled me briskly back into the world, gave me something that felt as promising as an infant to take care of. Odd how newness keeps breaking out of the bleakest things that overtake us.

What we are left with--in life and fiction--is the holy ability to remember. Even after so much is lost we learn--when possible--to laugh. The Widow says, He who laughs, lasts. I consider this book, like hers, a comic war novel.

To laugh with admiration at the outrageous behavior and dress-up of our friends. I'd like to giggle, as they did, whenever I honestly can. That, I know, is their preferred memorial.

A good laugh, it's my favorite way of remembering.

Praise

Praise

"A wondrous book..brimming with life.... [It] confirms Gurganus's stature as one of our most significant and indispensable writers." --Atlanta Journal & Constitution

"Gurganus, a storyteller in the grand tradition, can tell his stories as well as anyone alive." --The New York Times

"Witty and piercing.  There are sentences that glisten like black opals." --Los Angeles Times

  • Plays Well with Others by Allan Gurganus
  • February 02, 1999
  • Fiction - Gay
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9780375702037

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