An insight taught by tragedy Author: With humor and tenderness, Allan Gurganus nurses the memories of an address book full of friends lost to AIDS.

November 07, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

As Allan Gurganus heads out for a book tour in support of his first full-length novel in eight years, he knows that fans of his first book, "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," may be a bit, um, taken aback by the new one, "Plays Well With Others" (Alfred A. Knopf, $25).

The first was exactly what it purported to be: The fictional Lucy Marsden told readers everything about her life in a highly original voice that captivated most critics and many readers.

"Plays Well With Others" is a title that plays on many levels, not excluding the double-entendre. It is the story of three friends who come to New York in the early 1980s. Writer, artist, composer. Gay, heterosexual, bisexual. Two die from AIDS, one doesn't. The survivor is the writer, Hartley, who lives to tell their story.

Although the work is not autobiographical, Gurganus, now 50, lived in New York during the same period, while teaching at his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence. He had come to writing by a circuitous route: One of four sons of a Southern father and Yankee mother, he studied art in Philadelphia, then dropped out of school, Vietnam-ripe.

Drafted in 1967, he served on the USS Yorktown, which happened to have a well-stocked li- brary. Hooked by Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady," this self-described autodidact decided he would teach himself to write by trying to turn out Jamesian sentences.

Three years and 1,200 books later -- yes, he kept count -- Gurganus left the Navy and attended college on the GI bill,

studying creative writing with Grace Paley. He would continue to have great luck with his teachers; at the Iowa Writers Workshop, his instructors included John Cheever and Stanley Elkins.

Gurganus will read tonight at 7 p.m. at Chapters, 1512 K St. NW, in Washington. Reached at his home in Hillsborough, N.C., just ++ before his tour starts, his voice on the telephone is much like his fictional voice: funny, voluble, thoughtful, one of a kind. He notes: "People sometimes say they could read a sentence of mine in any context and know it was mine."

Are you worried that some people who loved "Confederate Widow" won't know what to make of "Plays Well With Others"?

I think the two books have lots of things in common -- extremely likable narrators who have survived their generation and more, and who are looking back on sort of a cataclysmic world event with their senses of humor intact. One of the lines I loved from "Widow" was Lucy's line: "He who laughs, lasts." There's a way that Hartley's deprecating sense of humor is like Lucy's.

So this is a comic novel about a serious subject.

I was always interested in writing comically about tragedy. I was partly inspired by reading Shakespeare and Chekhov, who are my two great gods. Dickens, I think, would qualify in that category, too. My mother was one of the funniest people in the world, and I think I inherited those genes.

The word comedy comes from the Greek word, komos, to dance a dance. [Note: Our Webster's says banquet, festival + from aeidein, to sing.] To see the world comically is to see the world with figures head-to-toe in motion, teeming with groups in motion, like seeing figures in a frieze.

When did you start writing this book?

Both my parents died within eight months of each other almost exactly a year ago. I wrote this book in an unbelieveable burst of energy in five months. I have another finished book of novellas, "Recent American Saints"'

That's a pretty amazing turn-around. Did your publisher have a problem with you turning in the novel instead of the expected book of novellas?

I have a wonderful editor, Dan Frank, and he was happy as long as I was sending him pages of anything. It's actually a wonderful situation that you have more books trying to get out than you have orifices to get them through. I have this doctor's waiting room of books all raising their hands, saying "Me next?"

Just like the VD clinic in "Plays Well With Others" where Hartley and the painter, Angie, first meet? "Number 284?"

[Laughing] Yes, exactly.

You've lost more than 40 friends to AIDS. Does there come a point where you stop keeping count, that you can't bear to put a number to it?

Yes. You know, the working title of this was "On Whether to Purge the Dead from One's Address Book."

And the answer is ...

My answer seems to be that you have to keep them listed; to have a constantly changing cast of characters seemed wrong to me. I found a way of keeping their names in the address book and tried to write my novel about this issue. You know, if you live to be 80 or 90, everyone you knew will be dead. By keeping count and keeping them in your mind, you end up assembling this community of the spirit.

I don't necessarily believe there's a literal heaven, but at the moment of death it must be extremely comforting to picture the faces of the 45 closest friends, to know you're going where they are -- up to, and including, nowhere. It's wonderful to know how present the dead really are.

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