At first sight Gilbert Adair’s new book seems like shameless pornography of a particularly sad and depraved kind, but more charitably and more accurately we discover as we read on that it is the story of an unlikely martyr-hero who risks his life in the cause of militant homosexuality rather than suffer suicidal loneliness. As a youth Gideon occasionally has very mild spasms of lust for boys but is content enough to lie beside a girl, his clumsy fingers inching past the cups of her brassiere to toy with her nipples. Suddenly her record player sings out, ‘Mr Sandman, bring me a dream/ Make him the cutest I’ve ever seen /Give him two lips like rose and clover/Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over.’ The scales fall from Gideon’s eyes. That’s what he wants. But where is this magical ‘him’ to replace the girl beside him whose habit of picking her nose reminds him of a chimney sweep dislodging a particularly stubborn chunk of soot?
After a few unsuccessful attempts to find such a paragon Gideon goes to Paris to teach at a Berlitz which astonishingly turns out to be a nest of gays. He’s overjoyed not just because he theoretically shares their tastes but because he longs to be a member of a set though he knows he isn’t a fully fledged one and so do they. One of them looks like the ideal lover Mr Sandman described, but the nearest Gideon gets to him is helping him squeeze a pimple until it pops. His first pick-up in St Germain-des-Près screams with pain when Gideon, invited to suck ‘it’, accidentally bites instead and is sent packing and told he smells.
Obsessed by the group, Gideon invents a fantasy love life to impress them with exploits even more hectic than their own. But this is 1980 and frightening rumours fly around. There’s a cancer that only gays can get which some doctors are refusing to treat and in Hollywood female stars turn away from the kisses of their leading men. Aids has arrived. The group huddle closer and Gideon joins the fold. Three of them go down with Aids and he’s driven not only to pretend he has got it himself but to embark on a mad life of unbridled sex with partner after partner far outstripping the fantasies he’d already invented without any real idea of what this would involve — Adair spares us none of the lurid details; one wished he did. From Gideon’s recklessness you might think Aids was no more than a duelling scar, an honourable wound, instead of the death he faces to be with his friends, ‘mes semblables, mes frères’.
A writer as good as Adair has always shown himself to be only resorts to pornography for a reason. Here he wants to emphasise the commitment that Gideon makes: it is the gross self-sacrifice of hating the sex he endures while failing to see why the group found it such ‘fun’. Nor can he stand being seen with ‘the loathsome freaks … all those dancing, prancing, mincing, naked grown men’. Is this ‘my libido’s last hurrah’? Was Gideon even a true homosexual? It is tempting to wonder whether if Mr Sandman hadn’t sung that siren song he might have overlooked the girl’s nose-picking habit, perhaps even coaxed her out of it, and made a dull marriage and a kind of life. Gideon would never admit to that. Instead when he gets Aids he salutes ‘the only brotherhood to which I’ve ever felt I truly belonged . . . how proud I’d be, how utterly unashamed, to die of Aids.’
This is a disturbing, brave and very well written book, not for the faint-hearted but neither is the curse of Aids.
It was interesting to see Bertolucci’s new film, The Dreamers, scripted by Gilbert Adair who also wrote the book (Faber, £6.99, pp. 193, ISBN 0571216269). There is the same explicit sex in this as in Buenas Noches, Buenos Aires and while Bertolucci omits some of the grosser details he sticks to the book, managing to turn it into something almost as innocent as an adolescent romp against a background of the same chansons and cuts from old movies that their parents saw and heard in their lovemaking days.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 14, 2004