PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS
By Allan Gurganus
In a scene near the middle of Plays Well With Others, Allan Gurganus tells how his three protagonists – composer Robert Gustafson, painter Alabama Byrnes, and writer-narrator Hartley Mims Jr. – get involved in a snowball fight in New York’s Central Park. It is described as a “snowball fight of happiness,” born of “an innocence that can only be understood by those still somewhat innocent themselves. The rest need not apply.”
It is a key moment, occurring near the end of a section of the novel entitled Before, meaning before the advent of AIDS. The 1980s New York art world the three friends belong to is on the verge of disaster. Gustafson’s only finished symphony is based on the Titanic, leading the narrator to compare the naive innocence of his friends with “that last tea-dance in the first-class ballroom of the Titanic, just before the ice.”
“The truth is,” he says looking back, “our community would meet a waiting test beyond all imagination.”
Despite the gravity of his theme, Gurganus’s gifts are for satire rather than elegy. And, at its best, Plays Well With Others is a hilarious book. In particular, the first 20 pages should be anthologized as an example of the very best in American humour writing.
But when the novel enters the After, and then the After After sections, it begins to drag, becoming both preachy and sentimental.
The other major problem with the book is the nature of the milieu that is being described. Gurganus never convinces us that any of the people we meet are more than self-centered, superficial talents puffed up by ostentatious vanity and an overheated art market. As a result, it is hard to empathize with the narrator’s sense of loss.
One can hardly question Gurganus’s sincerity or the depth of his concern, but perhaps he is attempting too much. Plays Well With Others wants to be a Journal of the AIDS Years as well as a Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the ’90s. And there are times when it almost succeeds.
But, like the snowball fight, such moments do not last.
Review first published January 3, 1998.