In the late '60s and early '70s, Britain, like the United States, was peopled with kids who didn't want to grow up -- which might have been all right, if only they hadn't spawned. That's the gentle dark joke at the heart of Hanif Kureishi's "Gabriel's Gift," a gingery novel about a bright, self-possessed 15-year-old boy who's reeling from the marital breakup of his parents, a hugely talented but washed-up guitarist and a former costume designer to rock royalty. The parents, having fallen away from the world of bohemian privilege, can't handle the bleak reality of paying rent and doing the work of getting along with one another. The son, Gabriel, has more sense than either of them but zero authority: Even boho parents -- or maybe especially boho parents -- cling to the hoary Old Testament decrees that parents must always be the rulers of the universe.
But that makes "Gabriel's Gift" sound heavier and nastier than it is: Kureishi has always been something of a hip humanist, the kind of writer who's more interested in his characters' spikes and smudges than in anything so dull as perfection or even predictability, and he brings that to bear here. Everyone has to adjust to the inhospitable adult world eventually, but there's always a secret part of us that refuses to grow up. "Gabriel's Gift" is a coming-of-age story that suggests that no one ever really comes of age: It's simply too heartbreaking.
Kureishi calls the parents, Rex and Christine, on their shortcomings, but he does it with love and jabs of needling humor. On some level they're both in on the joke of how unreasonable they are -- as well as the harsh reality that if talent were enough to get by in this world, they wouldn't be unreasonable at all. At one point Rex, his squalid flat less of a reality to him than his past glories as a rock star's second banana, scoffs when a rich movie producer offers him a grand job: "We're not so desperate that we're going to start working for a living."
What Kureishi is most interested in, though, is the formidable challenge that Gabriel has to stand up to. Forget man vs. man, man vs. nature and all that rot: The most fearsome enemy a boy can face is his parents' past, particularly if that past involves wearing fabulous clothes and hanging out with famous rock stars.
Gabriel isn't ashamed of his parents' reluctance to let that go, but he has to get around it for his own self-preservation. Intuitive and sharp-witted, he's shown a remarkable (and mystical) gift for drawing and hopes to someday become a filmmaker; he also has the ability to communicate with his long-dead twin brother, which he keeps secret out of fear of upsetting his parents, who were devastated by the boy's death.
When the book opens, Christine is working nights as a waitress, sleeping her days away when she's not nursing her bitterness and self-absorption, and Rex is living in a cheap room, trying to avoid the thugs and fellow bums he's borrowed money from. Christine can't be bothered much with Gabriel these days (she's hired a hairy Eastern European au pair, Hannah, to look after him, the ultimate shame for a 15-year-old); Rex, whom Christine has only recently kicked out of the house, adores Gabriel but, after years of being a hapless musician, is only just beginning to feel awkward and ashamed that he can't provide for the family financially. Gabriel is left to look after them emotionally, even as he's forging his own way. It doesn't help when Lester Jones, the rich David Bowie-style rock star Rex used to play with in his glory days, meets Gabriel and takes a liking to him, recognizing instantly that he has more sense and possibly more talent than either of his parents.
Kureishi gives us plenty of time to warm up to Gabriel: At first, when he's going out of his way to teach Hannah bad English, you wonder if he might be a bit of a meanie, but it's not long before we see exactly where he's coming from. Likable, vaguely confused, offbeat in an immensely appealing way, Gabriel is the quintessential youthful Kureishi hero. Early in the book, he discovers that an old gilt-edge mirror, discarded by his mother and now moved to his bedroom, is his greatest ally. Kureishi describes how Gabriel dresses up for, not just in front of, that mirror:
Looking in it one wet-fingered day after school, he had fallen in love. There would be a lifetime of such swooning! He understood why grown-ups whispered and what there was to hide ... Adjusting the angle of the mirror, he could pretend to be someone else, any woman he wanted to be or have, particularly if he had painted his toenails in some dainty shade and was wearing his mother's rings, necklaces and shoes.
Like the characters in Kureishi's screenplay for the Stephen Frears' picture "My Beautiful Laundrette," Gabriel isn't defined by his sexual ambiguities; they're just one component in a potent cocktail that's about to be gloriously and confusingly shaken, not just stirred.
"Gabriel's Gift" is a soft, light and springy novel, one with such a cautiously happy ending that you could almost call it a fairy tale. (In that respect, it's the kind of book you might expect Kureishi to write after the devastatingly mournful "Intimacy.") With as much tenderness as bite, "Gabriel's Gift" makes the case for hanging onto parts of the past -- the tricky part is knowing which ones are worth keeping. The glamour of Rex and Christine's past hasn't escaped Gabriel: He has absorbed it by osmosis, and he accepts it as something tangible and valuable. He has fond memories of the time he and his parents dressed up, '70s style, to see a Lester Jones concert. And he delights in helping his mother get ready for a big date, watching her put on the Ossie Clark dress that the designer made personally for her in the '70s, when she worked for him.
Unlike his parents, though, Gabriel isn't a hostage to that past. He takes the bits and pieces of their old, fabulous world and uses it to color his own. He's sure to go on to make an astonishing movie, and it's too bad we won't ever get to see it. But Kureishi gives us the next best thing by showing us how Gabriel's view of the world has been shaped -- no, distorted -- by his parents' aching nostalgia and disappointment. Every great rock 'n' roll guitarist knows that sometimes it takes a little distortion to capture the beauty of the world. The same goes for painters, filmmakers and writers, too.