"In the City of Shy Hunters" by Tom Spanbauer

The early days of the AIDS epidemic, seen through the eyes of a beautiful, enigmatic hero who's not gay, not straight, not bisexual.

Published June 22, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

This month, as the world commemorates the grotesquely conceived "20th anniversary" of AIDS, and as gay male pundits, ever narrow in their focus, hurl charges at each other over the merits and demerits of "bareback" sex, a novel appears to blow us all out of the water and remind us of what AIDS is really about -- people. People who need people, you might say, on the evidence of Tom Spanbauer's stunning new novel, "In the City of Shy Hunters."

If you've read Spanbauer's earlier books -- "Faraway Places" (1989) and the brilliant "Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon" (1991) -- you'll know that he's no ordinary "gay writer," just as his fiction, while riding on conventional coming-of-age, coming-to-terms, coming-out plots, is unlike any you've read or are likely to read before this epidemic ends. Yes, AIDS provides the thematic backdrop of "In the City of Shy Hunters." Yes, Spanbauer himself was diagnosed with "full-blown" AIDS in 1996. But "In the City of Shy Hunters" is so finely crafted, Spanbauer's characters so true to life, the New York City he remembers from the early days of the plague so exactly captured in its "unrelenting" mess and glory, you'll think you've been reading a modernist classic by the time you're through, rather than the latest entry in an artificial, post-post genre.

"Things start where you don't know and end up where you know," Spanbauer begins. Contradictions -- truth and lies, the power of opposites -- drive the novel. The "Shy Hunter" of Spanbauer's title is Will Parker -- "a white male six foot two one hundred and ninety pounds, thirty one years old, brown to blonde hair, hazel eyes, big butt, big legs, big nipples, should be bigger in the chest and arms. Big spirit, big body, big nose, crooked bottom teeth" -- who leaves a stifled existence in the Pacific Northwest for New York in search of an old friend (and his first male lover), Charlie 2Moons, last seen on his way to a graduate writing program at Columbia.

A white boy, Will was raised on an Indian reservation in Idaho, son of a hostile, dimwitted "rodeo clown" and a mother who loses her mind after the death of a child. In history, ethnicity and sexuality, Will is neither here nor there, not gay, not straight, not bi, though experienced in all three realms, with some tragic incest thrown into the bargain. Nicknamed "Horse Dick," Will has his "mother's nerves," a surfeit of regret and a talent whose fame precedes him - he can roll a cigarette with one hand. Pertinently, Will is impotent, helpless before the reality of his passions and the plague that commences to kill off his new friends and lovers in New York (or "Wolf Swamp," as it's called by Will's first acquaintances in the city, Clyde True Shot and Ruby Prestigiacomo, "a heroin-addicted hippie" and drag queen with a burgeoning case of Kaposi's sarcoma).

"The other day, Fiona said, when you were rolling that cigarette, when you told us you can't fuck, you were beautiful, real, and completely present." Fiona is Will's trainer and muse at the Theater Row restaurant where he lands a job, and where he first sees in plain light the man he comes to love: "Rose," a hulking, gorgeous African-American, practically drowning in bracelets and spangles, whose battle with AIDS forms the emotional heart of "In the City of Shy Hunters." To tell more would be a disservice to Spanbauer, a master narrator and stylist. Will's story unfolds as he searches, finds, loses and then discovers what he wants: "To be brothers. To always respect and love each other and always tell each other the truth and to keep each other's secrets and to never regret" -- a goal as true as it is impossible, for Will and for everyone.

Twenty years of AIDS? Skip the statistics and read this book. There won't be another one like it.

Our next pick: A collection of stories straight from the bar at the Tip Top Lounge

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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