Short-listed once again for the Booker Prize, this year for The Master, about the life of closet-gay novelist Henry James, Tóibín has become even more of a name in Britain. But his hopes were dashed a second time- in October that country’s most coveted literary prize was awarded to rival gay writer, Alan Hollinghurst, for his novel, The Line of Beauty.
While Hollinghurst specializes in evocations of the effete English aristocracy, Tóibín’s trademark is gloom. This tendency is showcased in his novel, The Story of the Night, inspired by his experiences in Argentina. As a journalist, Tóibín visited Buenos Aires to cover the trials of the Generals who had “disappeared” thousands of civilians in the early 1980s; but on humid summer nights, crazed with desire, he cruised a cityscape charged with sexual expectation.
Tóibín was exposed mercilessly to the self-denial of “machismo”-the gay men he met, married or with girlfriends, boasted that no one would ever know their real orientation. This is not the case with the novel’s protagonist, Richard Garay, who comes out to his mother– she expresses “utter contempt”. The narrative of The Story of the Night spans the genocide waged by the military junta, the gung-ho nationalism of the Falklands war and Argentina’s phoenix-like regeneration after wholesale privatization. In spare and fluid prose, Tóibín explores Garay’s cultural duality (Argentine but of English descent) and charts his meteoric rise from jaded English teacher to full-fledged yuppie. Befriended by undercover CIA agents, Susan and David Ford, and bedecked in Italian designer suits, he even gets the man he desires–the handsome son of a wealthy senator–who leaves home to live with him in a dream penthouse down by the river. Garay has everything he has ever wanted, so why not leave it there?
True, he later goes haywire during a trip to New York where he snorts cocaine and ends up as the sexual plaything of a seedy public relations executive. Tóibín could have glossed over such aberrations but is determined that these should be milestones on the road to a pitiless nemesis. Even worse, by the end of the novel, the novel’s four most important gay characters (Garay and his boyfriend included) have been poleaxed by AIDS. In an image that will delight many homophobes, any prospect of happiness is bequeathed to two young, sturdy and heterosexual youths glimpsed raising the sails of a boat by the ailing lovers.
Stating that his priority as a writer is to “hold the mirror up to nature”, Tóibín has compared himself with the artist Vermeer. But far from being a faithful chronicler, Tóibín is a gloom-monger. Belying the novel’s message, most gay men do not die of AIDS and these days the claim of a critic like Joseph Epstein, made as recently as 1970, that gay lives are “part of the pain of the earth” is absurd. The distinguished Cambridge novelist E.M. Forster was determined that his novel Maurice should end on a note of affirmation.
In a recent review, Tóibín wrote: “There is something heroic about Forster´s refusal in Maurice to insist that Scudder does not get arrested, or hang himself, or go to Buenos Aires”; but adds that he finds the ending unsatisfactory, admitting that he feels compelled to represent gay lives as tragic. Here Tóibín has bedfellows as distinguished as Gore Vidal and James Baldwin who in The City and the Pillar (1948) and Giovanni’s Room (1956) produced novels of gay self-loathing which end in murder and self-destruction; but both writers produced these works pre-Stonewall. Tóibín– who has erupted onto the literary scene at a more enlightened moment– has fewer excuses to peddle such misery. So any chance of this latter-day Jeremiah trading in his gloom? Not if an interview he gave to “LIT” is anything to go by: “You want loss and longing? You’ll get loss and longing. I’ve only just started”.