SMALL g: A Summer Idyll

By Patricia Highsmith. Norton. 310 pp. $24.95Small g: A Summer Idyll, Patricia Highsmith's final novel, rejected by her publishers just six months before her death, now appears in the United States for the first time. The eponymous Small g is a Zurich bar, which takes its name from the symbol used in guidebooks to denote a melange of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight clientele. The title is a fine conceit, for the novel is equally friendly to the variant sexualities of the characters between its pages.

Chief among them is a recently bereaved male advertising designer, Rickie Markwalder. The novel opens with a tense filmic account of the murder of Rickie's lover, Petey. This murder is a prologue to the main action of the book, which takes place in the summer, six months after Petey's funeral, a ceremony from which Rickie was excluded.

The narrative's catalyst is Teddie Stevenson, a good-looking young man who attracts the attention of Rickie and Luisa, an apprentice seamstress who previously carried a torch for Petey. This time the balance shifts, and it is Rickie whose love is unrequited.

Small g is compared on the flyleaf to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Highsmith's subtitle, A Summer Idyll, invites such an ambitious comparison, and there is something to be said for it. In Rickie's world Cupid's arrows take mischievous aim and land with no concern for gender or convenience.

Every fairy story needs a villain. Small g's is dress designer Renate Hagnauer, Luisa's boss, landlord and self-appointed protector. Renate is unamused by love's less conventional forms. In a parody of mainstream society's regular appropriation of the artistic innovations of marginalized groups, Renate spends her time in the bar sketching the outfits of this artistic community for use in her designs, while railing against their wearers' depravity. Yet Renate is no more master of her desires than anyone else in the book. She is drawn to Luisa and is desperately jealous of anyone who might come between them. Renate is a bitter, sexually repressed, ever-present restriction in the girl's life. When her protege starts going out with Teddie, then becomes involved with a striking young lesbian, it only remains to ask what form disaster will take.

Highsmith is known as a writer whose characters often lack a moral compass. Her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, involves an apparently decent man turning murderer on behalf of a new acquaintance, and her Tom Ripley series requires the reader to empathize with a borderline psychopath and murderer. Small g makes a clearer distinction between good and bad. Rickie, Luisa and their associates are good; Renate is most definitely bad. If this is a summer idyll, then Renate is the worm in the bud, but perhaps she is even more than that.

Highsmith emphasizes the abjection of the physically and mentally disabled in Small g in a way that sits at odds with the book's overall paean to tolerance and acceptance. Renate has a clubfoot, and Willi, her spy and henchman, is a dishwasher with learning difficulties. The form of Renate's disability suggests that if this is Eden, she is Satan. After all, "When you meet the Devil you will know him by his cloven hoof." Renate's approach to her foot -- the long skirts of the Edwardian costume she wears to hide it play a part in her eventual downfall -- also underlines her frustration and sense of shame about a feature that, like her sexuality, should be no disgrace. Renate is the only person in Small g who tries to hide her sexuality. The result is misery, frustration and eventually disaster.

Renate's disability is perhaps balanced by Rickie's well-founded belief that he is HIV-positive, a condition he believes his new lover, Freddie, shares. To say Highsmith treats the virus like a bad spell is not to suggest that she handles it lightly. But when the HIV is (rather unconvincingly) removed, it is as if Rickie has been freed from a terrible enchantment and offered a chance to reassess a world that until then has been tainted for him by the intolerance of Renate and her ilk and the death of Petey.

Small g has a compelling narrative but is lacking in character development and literary style. It reads like an exceedingly good first draft. But although this is perhaps an essentially unfinished work, Small g is a welcome addition to Highsmith's published novels, offering readers an insight into a fascinating aspect of Swiss society and an opportunity to explore Highsmith's final concerns and obsessions.

One of the most contented characters in the book is Freddie, a married bisexual policeman who perhaps embodies its central message: that love should be welcomed, whatever guise it comes in and that we must learn not to be afraid and to be tolerant of others. This may not be Highsmith's greatest novel, but it's a fine sentiment to depart on. *

Louise Welsh's first novel, "The Cutting Room," won the John Creasey Memorial Dagger and was recently included in the Stonewall Honor Book.