In three sharp, dazzling novels published in the 1980s and '90s, the British writer Alan Hollinghurst wrote about promiscuous gay men cruising through a womanless landscape of public lavatories, gyms, showers, and bars. With observant, precise, and naturalistic prose, he depicted a freewheeling subculture of complex, lusty, love-hungry, if not always likable, men. He nailed how they looked, talked, schemed, and, every few pages, very graphically, how they had sex. No serious writer has lavished more attention on the shape, tilt, and variety of the human penis.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. But those intense early books look narrow next to Hollinghurst's great, spacious new novel, The Line of Beauty. Here, for the first time, he writes explicitly about AIDS, rarely mentioned in his early work. And here, for the first time, are women mothers, mistresses, neurotic girls, and even a cameo by Margaret Thatcher. Hollinghurst has placed his gay protagonist within a larger social context, and the result is his most tender and powerful novel to date, a sprawling and haunting elegy to the 1980s.
The narrative begins in 1983 as 20-year-old virgin Nick Guest moves into the posh London home of his straight college friend (and secret crush), Toby Fedden. Toby's ambitious father, Gerald, has just been elected to Parliament in Thatcher's Tory landslide, and Nick, a budding aesthete fleeing a drab provincial upbringing, is enthralled by the family's glitzy lifestyle. It's an era when, as one character puts it, ''people just plummet upstairs,'' and that seems to be happening to Nick. He loves the pretentious paintings lining the Feddens' walls, the expensive French furniture, the invitations from luminaries, the country place in France. Nick wanders through Toby's starstudded, drug-fueled 21st-birthday celebration, drunk and giddy: ''Like his hero Henry James, Nick felt that he could 'stand a great deal of gilt.'''
But he's not completely shallow. Yet. Even as he is drawn into the Feddens' orbit, Nick embarks on an earnest affair with Leo, a frank, saucy West Indian who lives with his pious mother in a dowdy apartment decorated with religious paintings. Hollinghurst captures the fluid moods of Nick's first, tender weeks with Leo the suddenly sinking stomach, the unexplained elation, the terror of loss building sympathy for a character who might not deserve it.
And Nick may not. Just as Nick and Leo's romance seems about to blossom, Hollinghurst cuts to 1986. Leo has dropped from the picture and Nick has ripened into a jaded arriviste. His new lover, Wani Ouradi, is a pretty poster boy for decadent '80s hypocrisy, squiring around a fiancée while secretly addicted to cocaine, porn, and gay threesomes. In the long, extravagant party scene that marks the novel's chilly turning point the Feddens' over-the-top 25th anniversary Nick dances with Thatcher, then retreats to a bathroom for sex with a flirtatious male waiter and Wani, who's so coked up he begins bleeding from the nose. Should it come as any surprise that it all ends badly?
Actually, yes, given that this is a Hollinghurst novel, where partying has never led to punishment. But the gilded world Nick has mindlessly inhabited does indeed collapse as scandals erupt and AIDS begins claiming the men in his life. Hollinghurst handles the arrival of the disease with characteristic, devastating restraint. Consider the last time Nick sees a shockingly wasted Leo: at a distance, in a bar, a ''little woolly-hatted figure...who had once been his lover.'' Nick doesn't approach him; instead, terrified and lost, he picks up another man and leaves. Like the novel, the moment is cool, dry, heartbreaking.