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The Normal Heart

THE NIGHT LISTENER A Novel By Armistead Maupin; HarperCollins: 352 pp., $26

November 12, 2000|RICHARD CANNING | Richard Canning is the author of "Gay Fiction Speaks: Conversations With Gay Novelists," forthcoming in January from Columbia University Press

After the 1989 publication of "Sure of You," the final volume in his "Tales of the City" trilogy, Armistead Maupin spoke of a sense of relief at being released from its "gilt-plated cage." Two obvious questions occur with the publication of "The Night Listener": How is Maupin handling the ongoing stranglehold that "Tales" seem to have on his reputation (with Maupin's close involvement, all three volumes have now been adapted for television, with the third to be shown shortly)? Will "The Night Listener" alter this circumstance?

"The Night Listener" directly addresses these concerns. Maupin has acknowledged that the novel is his most straightforwardly autobiographical work. Its narrator, Gabriel Noone, shares much with his creator--not least some concern (and a lot of pride) at the independent life his own famous stories are taking on.

Noone, about Maupin's age, lives in a house situated and decorated much as Maupin's is. Both come from Charleston, S.C. Noone came out to his parents by way of a letter written by one of his gay characters, as did Maupin. Noone finds himself suddenly single after long-term lover Jess, HIV-positive, moves out--a detail that replicates the rather public developments in Maupin's relationship with his partner. Jess' worldview changes as a result of the success with which his body and the new treatment therapies fight the virus within.

Still, Maupin takes pains to warn the reader not to assume too much about Gabriel Noone (literally "No-one"). One major circumstance confounds the autobiographical aspect too: Noone's fame stems not from newspaper-serialized fictions (such as "Tales"), but from radio broadcasts. His celebrity resembles that of David Sedaris, of whom Maupin is a fan. In a rather strange twist on the relationship between Maupin and his fiction, life has circled back to imitate art: Maupin has recorded "The Night Listener" for serial radio broadcast.

The novel opens with Noone's explanation of his temperament as a fiction writer, especially his tendency always to "jewel the elephant" (more or less gilding the lily). Reordering and distorting experience is second nature to him as a novelist and, by implication, to Maupin too. Others find this invention hard to understand; especially the novel's second main character, Pete, a 13-year-old with AIDS contracted during a horrific past of sexual abuse at the hands of his parents and others. Noone indicates to Pete, a fan of his work, that a gay love affair in his stories closely mirrored Noone's own. Pete is also the author of a memoir, but the catharsis he seeks through his writing does not allow fictionalization.

Unlike Jess, Pete seemingly cannot hope for any release from his perilous state but death. Deliverance from the shame and mental anguish he experiences on top of his physical suffering comes only by way of penning "The Blacking Factory," which he writes to find catharsis. The book, sent to Noone in manuscript for a blurb, initiates a friendship with Pete, which soon resembles a father-son relationship. This is ironic, as Noone's relations with his own father continue to stall in the face of the latter's ill health. When Pete's apparent reclusiveness, induced by his fiercely protective foster mother's concern for his health, leads to the suspicion that he may not exist or may not have written his harrowing memoir, its would-be publishers abandon the project.

Noone had become the chief doubter after a planned visit to Pete's house is canceled and blames himself when Pete's mother claims his interest in the boy was more a writer's search for a good story than a substantial engagement of the heart. Noone's honesty and soul-searching make "The Night Listener" a vivid, sometimes painfully truthful, read. Maupin's deceptively unadorned prose conveys every second of agony in Noone's self-questioning and, to some degree, self-imposed humiliation.

Fans of Maupin's Hawthorne-like instinct for the moral dilemmas of the heart will not be disappointed. There are the odd, questionable detail; a restaurant resembling "a Hofbrauhaus on acid," for instance. Maupin can verge on gushiness. When Jess moves his stuff out, "both the computer and the computer table were gone, leaving a hole in the room that might as well have been in my heart." Both Maupin and Noone seem aware of this maudlin aspect, however. Noone acknowledges the lack of enthusiasm on the part of one New York editor for "my feelgood penny dreadfuls." When the more rational Jess questions his ex-lover's feelings for Pete, Noone feels "trivialized, dismissed as a sentimental fool."

Maupin skillfully allows the novel's various relationships to comment on one another. The fictional laying bare of a lover's--any lover's--anguish is moving. "The Night Listener" sees Maupin confronting many demons: the vicissitudes of life and the forcefulness of fictions, especially his own. Just as the immediacy of "Tales"--originally published as serialized fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle--allowed Maupin to "scoop" new trends in the lives of gay men and others, "The Night Listener" also marks a fictional first. It's the only novel to date that seriously considers the complex impact of the new treatment therapies on those with HIV and those who love them. In Jess' story, Maupin captures feelings of both liberation and bewilderment at the reprieve from an apparent death sentence. Pete's experiences tell us that drug cocktails alone won't usher in a world without AIDS.

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