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Sunday, October 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Michael Upchurch
British author Alan Hollinghurst ("The Swimming-Pool Library," "The Folding Star") is a gay writer and perfectly up-front about it yet "gay writer" doesn't cover even half of what he pulls off in his richly furnished, exquisitely detailed novels.
"The Line of Beauty," one of six finalists for this year's Man Booker Prize, is a case in point. His most ambitious book yet, it roams 1980s London, from the swankiest Kensington Park Gardens townhouse to the humblest ground-floor flat in Willesden, encompassing both the city's high life during Margaret Thatcher's heyday and its covert sexual life (straight as well as gay). Privilege and parasitism, bluster and bigotry, cocaine bingeing and stock-market finagling ... they're all here. And it sure doesn't hurt that Hollinghurst is one of the best writers of party scenes since F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Guiding us through this London of two decades ago is 20-year-old Oxford graduate Nick Guest, school friend of Toby Fedden and factotum/caretaker to the entire Fedden family: father Gerald, a genially pompous conservative MP; daughter Catherine, a manic-depressive with a "hunger for the spontaneous"; and mother Rachel, keeper of the peace and the real money behind the family.
After Oxford, Nick takes up residence with them, fitting "oddly but snugly" into their Kensington Park Gardens household, while doing post-graduate studies of "style at the turn of the century Conrad, and Meredith, and Henry James, of course." He's especially fond of "style that hides things and reveals things at the same time" (a clue to how Hollinghurst, the novelist, likes to operate).
Still, it is less Nick's literary interests than his knowledge of good furniture (his father was an antiques dealer) that lets him slip so smoothly into the Feddens' circle. That, and his seductive way with his elders: "He liked to be charming, and hardly noticed when he drifted excitedly into insincerity."
There are some peculiarities to his smiling geniality, however. For one thing, it doesn't extend to his own parents. For another, his capacity for self-deception in his eagerness to please or impress is enough to ring alarm bells.
His two major love affairs also sit oddly with his status as a Fedden intimate. The first, with Jamaican-British film buff Leo, doesn't mesh at all well with Nick's Tory-centric life. His second, with Fedden family-friend Wani Ouradi ("closeted cokehead" and son of a grocery-store magnate), has to be kept completely secret for a startling list of reasons: "He's a millionaire, he's Lebanese, he's the only child, he's engaged to be married, his father's a psychopath."
Hollinghurst is a dab hand at weaving these multiple strands of Nick's life together, and he knows exactly how to build tension through incisive character portrayal. Catherine and Wani are temperamental time-bombs, in constant danger of detonation. Thatcher is an éminence grise who might just make an appearance in the book. AIDS is a threat about to hit Nick's circle. Tory eagerness to "get public services back into private hands" as quickly as possible seems bound to produce some fallout of its own.
But it's Nick's fawning/passive nature "He had a dread of being in the wrong, but was also frightened of taking action" that is the engine of the book. Given the way he keeps putting himself into false or unconsidered positions, it's clear he's in for a wake-up call.
Weighty stuff but Hollinghurst can be laugh-out-loud funny about some of it. He can also sum up revealing states of mind in a line or two ("Wani was distant after sex, as if assessing a slight to his dignity"). And while Hollinghurst is as much of an aesthete as Nick, he's aware that the unquestioning worship of riches, style and beauty is a dubious business. (The permutations that the book's pivotal "line of beauty" image goes through are telling.)
The novel, while providing a rueful, snapshot-accurate portrait of its era, also illuminates in a powerfully persuasive way what a huge growing-up process goes on between the ages of 20 and 25.
Nick's journey from innocence to experience is played out with no special pleading. Right to the end, there's something deeply unreliable about his character (a bold move on Hollinghurst's part).
But it's also clear that Hollinghurst sees the 1980s as not exactly the easiest time for a 20-year-old kid to find his way in the world, what with AIDS on the horizon and greed on the rise.
Indeed, "The Line of Beauty" gets Nick and his decade so right that you can't help wondering what sort of vision Hollinghurst may deliver of our own far-too-interesting times, 20 years hence.
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