THE LINE OF BEAUTY
By Alan Hollinghurst. Bloomsbury. 438 pp. $24.95
Listen to this sentence. "Nick, in his secret innocence, felt a certain respect for her experience with men: to have so many failures required a high rate of preliminary success." There's nothing flashy about the language, but the careful balance and the unobtrusive wit reveal a writer who cares about his style.
Alan Hollinghurst isn't sufficiently known in the United States, despite three previous novels, starting with the critically admired The Swimming Pool Library. That book ranks, with Andrew Holleran's Dancer From the Dance and Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, as a modern classic of both gay literature and finely nuanced prose. Either of those might have been enough to sink its chances with a general readership.
In The Line of Beauty, recently short-listed for the Man Booker prize, Hollinghurst interlaces three different plots -- a Condition of England novel set during the Thatcher era of the 1980s, a Jamesian psychological inquiry cum social comedy about the well-to-do Fedden family and their friends, and a gay coming-of-age story. All three are tracked against the backdrop of country-house parties, homosexual cruising, drugs, financial manipulations, the advent of AIDS and rampant erotic duplicity.
Following his graduation from Oxford, Nick Guest accepts an invitation to visit for a few weeks with his friend Toby. Living up to his last name, Nick stays on and on at the Feddens', eventually renting a small attic room and coming to be regarded as virtually one of the family. The father, Gerald, is a Tory member of Parliament; his wife, Rachel, comes from a wealthy Jewish family; beautiful son Toby is engaged to a rising young actress, and daughter Catherine -- the "her" in the sentence I quoted -- acts dangerously manic-depressive and suicidal.
It's all slightly reminiscent of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte -- Brideshead revised, if not precisely revisited. The book's chapters themselves function as (seemingly) random core samplings of the recent British past. In the opening pages, for instance, the virginal Nick responds to a personal ad from a Jamaican that leads to surprisingly unflinching sex in a garden. In subsequent chapters we drop in on Toby's 21st birthday party, a Sunday morning at the Fedden household, a holiday in France, a gay swim club, the Eurotrash lifestyle of Lebanese multimillionaire Wani Ourani, a personal visit from Mrs. Thatcher and eventually a climax of terrible sickness and tabloid scandal.
Throughout Nick remains the center of consciousness, always sympathetic, even as he grows increasingly coarse in his sexual sophistication (and taste for cocaine). What makes the book so fine, though, is its writing -- suffused with enough wit to keep the diction original and lively without overpowering the reader with campiness or excess. At a party Nick runs into an old college chum:
"It was a mystery to him that fat old Polly, who was rutted with acne scars and completely lacking in ordinary kindness, had such a conspicuous success with men. In college he had brought off a number of almost impossible seductions, from kitchen boys to the solemnly hetero Captain of Boats. Nothing that lasted, but startling triumphs of will, opportunism and technique, even so."
Hollinghurst is, in general, singularly adept at choosing just the right words ("startling triumphs of will, opportunism and technique"), making unexpected observations ("lacking in ordinary kindness") and pulling off neat rhetorical gestures ("even so"). One can, in fact, enjoy The Line of Beauty just for its lines of beauty. Consider, for instance, three sartorial descriptions. Leo wears a "zipped-up tracksuit top which made him look ready for action, or for inaction, the rigours and hanging about of training." Lady Partridge's jacket, "heavily embroidered with glinting black and silver thread, had a scaly texture, on which finer fabrics might have snagged and laddered." The wealthy Lord Kessler, in his turn, sports a "dark grey three-piece suit which made no concessions to fashion or even to the season; he looked warm in it, but seemed to say that this was simply what one wore. He ate his salmon and drank his rather sweet hock with an indefinable air of relished routine, an admission of lifelong lunching in boardrooms and country houses and festival restaurants all over Europe."
As the novel progresses, we start to see more and more cracks in the teacup, in this showy world; corruption spreads and stains. Gerald's true nature -- and that of Thatcherism -- is summed up by Nick's comment on the music of Richard Strauss. "What the problem was was this colossal redundancy, the squandering of brilliant technique on cheap material, the sense that the moral nerves had been cut, leaving the great bloated body to a life of valueless excess." Throughout, art and music illuminate character, as in an Iris Murdoch novel. Friends attend "Tannhäuser" and then gossip "competitively about the edition being used, an awkward hybrid of the Paris and Dresden versions." Wani explains that " 'the rococo is the final deliquescence of the baroque' . . . as if he really couldn't be plainer."
I dwell a lot on Hollinghurst's obliquely comic style largely because it's so admirable. Yet rest assured: He also tells a story that keeps you turning the pages. There are a few pages of graphic homosexual acts, which may be offputting to some readers, but many more of sly or high comedy: In one particularly delicious conversation, a rich dowager hilariously confuses the suicidal poet John Berryman with the smiling public poet John Betjeman.
In the end, though, one can't get enough of Hollinghurst's sentences: "Nick had decided in the taxi that he would stick to water, but when Bertrand came in saying, 'Now drinks!' he at once saw the point of a bloody Mary." A young East European pianist performs some Chopin: "Here came the opening again, the admonitory rumble, the reckless, accurate leap. She had clearly been ferociously schooled, she was like those implacable little gymnasts who sprang out from behind the Iron Curtain, curling and vaulting along the keyboard." On holiday Catherine's boyfriend wears skimpy swim trunks that he's convinced make him look sexy. But Nick observes, with neat ambiguity, that the man's thong "leaves disappointingly little to the imagination."
Edmund White has said that Alan Hollinghurst "writes the best prose we have today." I might not go that far -- White himself is no slouch with a sentence -- but if you value style, wit and social satire in your reading, don't miss this elegant and passionate novel.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His weekly live online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.