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The Dollhouse | RICHARD EDER

THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE. By Jane Hamilton . Random House: 348 pp., $23

March 29, 1998|RICHARD EDER

If you are William and the world won't accept you as William and you have to keep fighting so that it will, then what do you call yourself once it does? The question stirs uneasily within what is conveniently known as gay fiction; it is one that Jane Hamilton--married to an apple grower and mother of two--explores with sympathy and nerve.

Hamilton, author of "The Book of Ruth" and "A Map of the World," writes hard novels beautifully. In "The Short History of a Prince," she tries to see beyond what, in the first full literary generation, has tended understandably to show itself as a kind of gay exceptionalism.

Her valiant and precarious protagonist, Walter McCloud, graduates from his short history as a gay prince into a long future as a human commoner. His identity is in no way blurred. It simply undergoes the fate of all identities: to be one among those elements that make up our common lot and that bump, bruise and abrade each other to become parts of a whole, that is defined less by what it is than by where it goes. Gay is the route that some of us must take to arrive at being human.

"The Short History of a Prince" places Walter, waif-like, in the bosom of a large and ebullient Midwestern clan that gathers to spend summers and holidays in a rambling Victorian house on a Wisconsin lake. The in-gathering goes back several generations. Its ritual swimming, sailing, meals and the confection of a special lard cake are tribal rites conducted with varying degrees of insistence and skepticism by Walter's two aunts and his mother.

Champagne bottles from decades of celebration are labeled and preserved; so is a wall-sized Pegboard hung with framed family photographs. When it falls over and smashes--one of the three sisters is suspected of having taken a hand, or rather a foot--this may or may not be understood as a whiff of subversion.

Hamilton's novel goes back and forth between the early '70s, when Walter was in his teens, to the mid-'90s. It charts his difficult journey partly in terms of his changing relationship over the years to the summer house and the family that gathers there and partly in terms of the changes in his regular life.

As a teenager, he is a passionate, but no more than competent, ballet student, commuting to class from his Chicago suburb along with two more gifted friends. Mitch, beautiful but lazy, will eventually give up dance; Susan, brilliant and dedicated, will go on to join the New York City Ballet, leave it after the death of George Balanchine, marry and move to Miami to dance with the local company.

Walter, Mitch and Susan form a tight triangle--isosceles, like most such triangles. Mitch and Susan are a couple; Walter, their necessary audience, wit and didactic authority on all things musical and balletic. He half-suppresses, half-conceals his passion for Mitch, allowing himself, for a time, no more than the fantasy of putting on a tutu and dancing as his ballerina partner.

Ripe with artistic intensity and erotic implication, the trio is a tiny hothouse kingdom in the bland Chicago suburbs. Walter, as adolescents can do, converts the role of odd man out into that of little lame prince. The world presses in on such principalities, though, and inevitably there is a breach. Dan, Walter's older brother, is stricken with cancer, and their parents exhaust their time and attention in long hospital vigils. Much worse, Susan falls in love with the sick boy and helps their mother to nurse him.

Walter's triangular realm collapses. Susan has opened its gates to the enemy: the family ties and obligations it was meant to be free of. In the wreckage, Walter and the rejected Mitch begin to have clandestine sex. For Mitch, basically heterosexual, it is simply a brute release; for Walter, it is romantic ecstasy.

Until the night, that is, when his parents come home unexpectedly. While Mitch hides under the bed, Walter's mother sits on top of it to tell him that Dan is about to die. It is the book's pivot: life and death upon the bed; beneath, the remains of a fantasy that cannot withstand them.

"Short History" does not work the pivot all at once. Hamilton is adept at climactic moments, but her true quality lies in weaving them into the long procession of time and human contradictions. Shuttling between past and present, she depicts by increments Walter's growth out of fantasy into reality. There is pain in both.

The fantasy lies not in her protagonist's sexual orientation and desires but in his walling them off from other parts of his nature that are at least as profound, perhaps more so. He is an American of the Midwest; as the years go by, its values tug more and more strongly, and so do his ties with his extensive and turbulently human family.

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