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IN BRIEF

FICTION : THE DRUMMER OF THE ELEVENTH NORTH DEVONSHIRE FUSILIERS by Guy Davenport (North Point Press: $19.95; 144 pp.)

November 11, 1990|Michael Harris

Guy Davenport has a problem. Few people read serious fiction. Even fewer read serious fiction that is frankly gay. Fewer still read serious, frankly gay fiction that demands so much from its audience--stylistically rich, philosophically speculative, structurally adventurous. Yet Davenport has been blessed, or cursed, with the ability to write the stuff, and must feel that he has no choice.

Davenport acknowledges as much. "My few readers," he says wryly, "will recognize that 'Wo es war, soll ich werden' (the novella that accompanies four short stories here), completes a trilogy begun with 'Apples and Pears' and 'The Jules Verne Steam Balloon.' "

This collection has internal links, too. The stories--about students playing blind-man's buff, Roman soldiers soiled by battle feigning purity to carry the captured statue of a goddess, a boy in Depression-era Appalachia who wears dresses, another boy in Scandinavia who, to mask his fear as he seeks his first homosexual encounter in a park, sees everything through the eyes of an imaginary dog--all hint at the existence of magic spaces, mini-Edens where young people can explore not only their sexuality but the nature of affection itself: friendship, intimacy, love.

The novella, set in a boys' prep school in Denmark, expands on this theme. Its title, translated to "Where It Was, There I Must Begin to Be," comes from Freud; it refers to the human organism's ability to reconstruct itself around a healing wound, like a pearl around a grain of sand. Variously wounded, a young professor, a dormitory prefect, a jock and a 12-year-old prodigy help one another learn and grow in an atmosphere of extraordinary civility, spiced by some delightful girls. Such a school, academically rigorous but sexually laissez-faire, could not exist--certainly not in America--but Davenport's vision of it shames our diminished ideas of education, our stunted selves.

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