"The Spell"

Alan Hollinghurst returns with variations on a gay quartet.

By Dennis Drabelle
Published April 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A character in "The Spell" smiles the smile of someone with access to "huge cross-indexed files of sexual anecdote." That phrase almost works as a capsule summary of Alan Hollinghurst's breezy new novel, which interweaves sexual anecdotes involving four main characters, not to mention a host of supporting players caught up in London's gay scene.

After an opening chapter set in the Arizona desert, the novel jumps two decades forward and then shuttles between London and the English countryside, where one member of the quartet owns a cottage. Robin Woodfield, now in his late 40s, is the same chap who went poking around the desert in the first chapter, studying Frank Lloyd Wright houses and straying from his marriage to have sex with men. Robin has long since divorced and come out, and he now lives with his lover, Justin, a witty, sluttish, bored egomaniac. Often underfoot is Robin's son, Danny, a hot 22-year-old who's also gay and whose life centers on taking ecstasy, dancing the night away to house music and carrying on short-lived affairs. The fourth member of the group is Justin's ex, a handsome but crashingly earnest civil servant named Alex .

In a fit of impishness, Justin invites Alex down for a weekend in the country; the idea is to see how much jealousy his presence can stir up. But an unexpected twist spoils Justin's sport: Despite the 15-year difference in their ages, Alex and Danny fall in love. Neither Justin nor Robin likes this development one bit, and readers get to shake their heads over its slim chances of lasting. But the affair proves to be a tonic for Alex. The sex is great, the grieving over Justin dries up and the drugs that Alex takes under Danny's tutelage shake him out of his torpor.

There's a bit more to the plot, but not much. After the gay-bashing that darkened Hollinghurst's superb first novel, "The Swimming-Pool Library," and the romantic obsession that pervaded his second, "The Folding Star," this is a lightsome performance, and it has a bravura set piece -- a party at that country house on or about Midsummer Night (though precisely which night is the shortest of the year is disputed by a pedantic heterosexual neighbor of Robin's). What distinguishes "The Spell" from most romantic comedies is the author's keen observation of gay mores, along with a graceful style that smoothly accommodates earthy details. Take, for example, this snapshot of Alex and Danny on the beach: "Alex looked down at him, the sun-pinked nose, the dip at the base of the throat, the lop-sided tenting-up of his shorts that any friendly physical contact seemed to bring about, the bare ankles scratched by grass stalks. It would have been unreasonable to expect more than this from life."

Yet for all its witticisms and apergus, "The Spell" looks pallid next to its two predecessors. These characters are too resilient, the stakes they are playing for too low, for the story to have much of an impact. And although the older gay man's infatuation with The Boy is a rich theme, the time may have come for Hollinghurst to explore another one. At one point Justin, miffed because Robin has cheated on him during a trial separation, harks back to the sleaziness of their first encounter, and the author gets off another mordant line: "For the first time, it struck him as absurd to expect loyalty from someone he had met in a toilet." It would not be absurd, though, to expect more from a novel -- especially one by a writer as gifted as Alan Hollinghurst.

Dennis Drabelle

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor at the Washington Post Book World.

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