THE SPELL

By Alan Hollinghurst

Viking. 257 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Louis Bayard

Many years after their graduation, the gay men of Alan Hollinghurst's novels continue to breathe the sweaty, rarefied atmosphere of British public schools. Women are largely absent here, class distinctions give way to a new aristocracy of beauty, and the richest and cleverest of boys can be laid low by sexual desire. The hero of Hollinghurst's first book, The Swimming-Pool Library, loses his heart (and body) to working-class boys who are no more able to be faithful than he is. The narrator of The Folding Star forsakes academic scruples for a Humbert-like obsession with his 17-year-old pupil. And in Hollinghurst's latest work, The Spell, upwardly mobile professionals sacrifice dignity and moral standing to the claims of love and lust. They wouldn't have it any other way.

The story proper begins in the Dorset countryside, with four men gathering for a summer weekend. The hosts are Robin, a forty-something architect who specializes in restoring doddering ancestral homes, and Justin, Robin's younger lover, a spoiled creature who loiters about the house all day, gobbling up alcohol and sex. Justin has invited his ex-lover -- the sweet, befuddled Alex -- and Robin has asked his grown son, Danny, who is now tasting the full range of gay sex with an eagerness that disconcerts his father. Before the weekend is over, one relationship is starting to unravel, another is being born, and everyone, in his quest for a "life of love and excitement," will experience "the hard currency of human business."

Nothing overtly melodramatic happens over the course of the book. Robin has a couple of jealous rages. Alex gets initiated into house music and Ecstasy. Justin holes up in a pensioners' hotel, ordering male prostitutes like room service. What gives the story its momentum is the back-and-forth tug of the characters' passions and, in particular, the sinuous rhythms of Hollinghurst's prose. For The Spell is ultimately about the spell of language, and few writers can put you in a deeper trance.

All his customary strengths are on display here: his easy command of urban and rural landscapes, his ability to locate characters in emotional space, his vocabulary and almost promiscuous fluency. Not a paragraph goes by without some bracing trope, some indelible etching: "the vague first knottings and stretchings of age" in a 40-year-old's body; a near-naked man sauntering in an apron "like a French maid in an elderly work of pornography"; a "pleasant Scots girl, who made Justin think of bare knees in a cold wind."

Hollinghurst is a lyrical ironist, well-attuned to loss and equally ready to disperse the loss with punctual gusts of wit. (I particularly liked the moment when a reincarnation buff claims he was once "a sixteen-year-old fish-seller in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus Christ," and another character dryly inquires: "You'd never suspected?") From line to line, you feel yourself pulled along by an impeccable technician. You see how economically the author sets up his characters' relationships, how smoothly he shifts between different perspectives. And about the only thing that limits your pleasure is the sense that the author is even more impressed than you are, that he has become a little knowing about his virtuosity. More and more of Hollinghurst's sentences land with smacks of self-congratulation. You'll read a line like "Moths, labouring through the dark on their own amorous callings, rushed to obliterate themselves on the beacon of the car," and you'll actually feel the book pausing so the author can take a bow.

It's strange, because the prose here is only a shade more exhibitionistic than it was in The Swimming-Pool Library, which stands as one of the great stylistic coups of gay fiction. But what was appealing bravado in a first-time novelist can become, with age, a draining anxiety. Hollinghurst is what Virginia Woolf once accused E.M. Forster of being: a light sleeper. He just can't rest unless he knows we're paying attention. Did we catch that phrase about angling "in the sullen pond of his misfortunes"? Nicely turned, that. And how about that smut shop stocked with "alien porn"? Droll.

Hollinghurst's earlier books are more relaxed productions, and they have the additional virtue of looking beyond the specifics of modern gay life to make connections to earlier periods of European history. Here the characters are left to their own literary devices, and in the glare of scrutiny their dislikable traits stand in stark relief: their bored beauty and Dionysian pettiness, their tiresome obsession with penis size, their viciousness masked as charm. The Spell shows what happens when a prodigally gifted writer applies his gifts too strictly -- to people who don't quite deserve them. It reminds us that the spell of language is not always enough.

Louis Bayard is the author of a new novel, "Fool's Errand."